TL;DR: When a social justice criticism was brought to us, we acknowledged the mistake, engaged with those criticizing, and fixed the problem instead of doubling down or protesting that wasn’t what we meant. It worked to resolve the problem and helped us clarify the message we meant to send.
“Just wait until Twitter comes for you.”
I’ve been told this in so many words more than a handful of times — and in other words far more than that.
Wait until the social justice people come for you. You’ll say the wrong thing, won’t use the right term, and they’ll be all over you. Then you’ll know how we feel.
For years now, I’ve been advocating that the best response to a controversy – particularly an internet one – is to actively listen to the people who are complaining. To apologize for offending – even if you don’t understand why they’re offended, it’s clear that they are, so apologize. (And no “I’m sorry you feel offended” – flat out “I’m sorry I offended you”.) Strive to understand why they’re offended – and ask for their input and advice. And then, whenever possible, fix the problem or change your behavior to avoid repeating the problem.
I was told that would never work. That it wouldn’t be enough.
My standard response has been “Okay. We’ll see.”
Wanting More Stories
We’d thought about the possibility, of course. Both Sarah and I had been concerned about doing Steampunk World in the first place; we’re both white, after all. But we waited, and hadn’t seen anyone else doing an anthology like that one… so we did it. And we were both glad to see other people from various cultural groups start to do anthologies featuring their own cultures.
After Steampunk World was published, we realized we weren’t seeing stories featuring characters with disabilities – whether because of a physical issue or because they were aneurotypical. So that seemed like a natural follow up, with a hope that Steampunk Universe would likewise expand the market for others. Just like Steampunk World, Sarah has been very selective in what stories she accepted. That selectiveness meant we needed more stories, and led to us issuing an open call for submissions in July of 2015.
When Problems Arose
I heard from Sarah that there was a problem with our call for submissions for Steampunk Universe last Sunday afternoon; that bloggers and twitter were really upset with us. I hurried back home and hopped online to start reading.
It seemed to start with a (well-thought out) blog post “Its a Steampunk Universe Unless Youre an Indigenous American”, but had spread across a small chunk of Twitter. There were three identified problems:
1. The call for submissions seemed to indicate we didn’t want any Native American/First Nations stories
2. We used the term “exceptionalities” instead of “disabilites” or “aneurotypical” (I was
3. Some of the phrasing came across as wanting to see the “disability as superpower” trope or “inspiration porn“.
None of this was what we intended to communicate. And since I’d approved all of the language personally, this was on me.
What We Meant
I knew what we meant in each of those cases. What we meant does not excuse what was said. It does not make it go away. Intent does not alleviate harm.
I’m only noting what we meant here as an example to others to show how far what you meant can diverge from what was heard.
1. We had already committed to a number of stories, and wanted to see stories from other regions as well.
2. The term “exceptionalities” is used in special education (in at least some regions of the country, including where we live) in order to show respect, not demean.
3. We wanted to see how disabled characters saw “typical” steampunk environments differently than abled characters; to really see their POV.
How We Responded
I could have doubled down on “that’s not what we meant”. I could have ignored the hashtag “#saytheword“. Sadly, there’s plenty of examples in just SF/F/H of editors and authors doing that. I could have simply ignored the concerns being brought forward.
Instead, I acknowledged that what we meant was – for various reasons – diametrically opposite from what was heard. I engaged with the people bringing forward the complaints. On Twitter, in e-mail, and on the phone.
I listened to them. I explained what our intent was, yes. But I also listened to how that came across to them.
I asked for their advice and opinions so that we could communicate what we meant more clearly.
I honestly thanked them all for their time and input.
And then, once I’d collected that advice, we made changes to the call for submissions to address the concerns.
What I Deserve/After-Action Review
The changes we made to the call for submissions are all wording-based. We changed the language to alternating between “disabled”/”aneurotypical” and “not identifying as able and neurotypical”. (See the #saytheword hashtag and similar resources to see why this is important.) We made it clear that we weren’t ruling out stories set in an area; we were encouraging stories set in other regions. We made it clear we didn’t want “disability as superpower” stories. All of this is absolutely in line with what we meant to communicate; now we’re actually communicating it.
At this point, it seems that the issue is largely resolved. It’s quite possible I’ll misspeak again, but for now we’re okay. The original blog poster has amended her post; everyone I’ve spoken with in e-mail or on Twitter is satisfied with the changes made. Some still are a bit cautious, given that the screwup happened at all, but that’s understandable.
Let’s make this clear – we don’t deserve a cookie for engaging others and changing the call for submissions. Despite being told (repeatedly) during the discussion that people were surprised that we were taking them seriously and listening, that does not mean we deserve kudos.
Honestly listening to and responding to the complaints of those offended is a minimum, not something to be lauded.
That’s what we should be doing in all our communication: When something doesn’t sound right, we reflect back what we heard so the speaker has a chance to clarify if that’s what they meant.
So why have I written a thousand words or so about it?
Partially to acknowledge the mistake honestly, and to note how it was fixed.
Partially to demonstrate that there are people in publishing that will listen to your concerns, and that voicing them honestly may effect real change.
Mostly it’s for those people who warned me about Twitter coming for me. It’s for those people who get angry or scared because they’re afraid they’ll use the “wrong” term. It’s for those people who think the right thing to do is to double-down about what they intended and just saw things get worse.
Because they told me that listening to and engaging others would not be useful.
And they were wrong.
You can act like a bigot and never mean to. Privelege can be invisible to you – but still lead you to cause real, unintended harm.
I’m here to tell you that if you’re willing to really listen, if you’re willing to put your ego to the side, to forget what you meant and focus on what was heard, if you’re willing to acknowledge the damage you did and willing to try to fix it…
…then you only have to fear making yourself a better person.
The revised call for submissions is at https://steampunkuniverse.alliterationink.com/
I have to say, I'm glad you ditched "exceptionalities". My wife lives with a disability, and I know (without showing it to her) that that phrasing would have set her off on an epic rant.
You always have to be careful about jargon, and in this case what bit you seems to have been specifically a regional jargon term. I am able-bodied and neurotypical, and "exceptionalities" would have made me flinch; it sounds to me like an updated version of "differently abled", and tooth-gratingly patronizing to those with disabilities.
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