Rachel Swirsky (rachel_swirsky) wrote,
Rachel Swirsky

Deconstructing Sheri Tepper's 2008 Interview with Strange Horizons

So, someone asked me what was so offensive about Tepper's interview. After reading her comments, I'm convinced that it might actually be helpful to some people if I did a deconstruction. I don't usually fisk things because it's a format I usually find boring, but it seemed like the best way to come at this.

In sum: This is not a well-researched, annotated, considered response. This is off the cuff, based only on the information I have at hand to draw. I didn't fact even fact check myself. But even if some points are weak or badly stated (quite possible), I think this establishes the rudimentary foundations for why I found Tepper's argument so desperately offensive.

Any given one of these comments I'm criticizing may not be so bad. Certainly, some of them are much, much worse than others. Taken all together, they suggest a certain amount of authoritarianism and black and white thinking, ignorance of or willingness to ignore context & culture, and lots and lots of racism.

The writing is addressed to that person, so that's what I mean by "you."

To begin, a few points unrelated to the interview:

A) The post that Nicoll linked to from Bookelfe talks some about Tepper's textual issues with ethnocentrism and racism. I'm not sure if those arguments will make sense to you or not? There seems to be a 2nd/3rd wave divide on that sort of thing, which is just the intersectionality issue. I don't have time to deconstruct it, but it's related to the issues around western focus on veiling and female genital surgeries, and if you want, I can link you to some of the posts I've written on that. (FGS was one of the things my anthro mentor in college studied.)

B) Was she ranting? I don't know? Maybe she was ranting? I get ranting and, you know, if what she said wasn't meant for a literal reading then yay?... but her books mirror these points of view and it's clearly something she's thought out so it's not like "she got on a tear and just went with it." If this is a recurring rant, even one not meant to be taken seriously, she should probably consider the ways in which ableism/etc are fundamentally integrated into it.

OK, quotes from the interview:

You've worked for CARE and been Executive Director at Planned Parenthood. Does that contribute to your fiction?"

This makes a stance in favor of forcible sterilization even more creepy than it would be otherwise.

If I know I can trust certain authors I'll go ahead and read these terrifying five pages because I know it's going to be okay. I never read an author twice if I can't trust him or her to make it come out right. I never read an author twice if he writes the kind of books where everyone and everything is in tension from page one to the last paragraph of the last page, like that dreadful TV show, 24. Tension is something I have plenty of in life. I don't need it elsewhere."

So... this is a trifle weird for a writer, IMO, but people's individual reading habits are their own business. However, if it applies to how she writes fiction, then it has particularly disturbing implications and suggests, again, that she takes the stuff in her books quite literally. (e.g. on bookelfe's post there's a comment about a Tepper society in which, at the end of the book, the only ppl allowed to keep psychic powers are those who can detect sociopathy at birth. Current psychology indicates, strongly, that sociopathy would not be present at birth. As a justification for infanticide, this is scary, particularly given real world examples in which infants are or have been killed because of fears of what they would eventually grow up into. Maybe she doesn't believe in inborn sociopathy at this point in the development of social science; maybe she didn't ever mean it literally; one can only hope, but this quote about things "coming out right" makes me, again, read her as not ranting.)

Much "great writing" is depressing. The storyteller doesn't usually indulge in either tragedy or depression because the storyteller wants the reader (hearer) to enjoy the telling. The storyteller may not even know what the needs of literature are. The storyteller (the preacher) wants to elevate the heart, not revel in technique. "

I was going to say this wasn't so much a political WTF as just a WTF, but it has political implications--BELOVED is depressing; it doesn't elevate the heart? GRAPES OF WRATH? PARABLE OF THE SOWER? THE YELLOW WALLPAPER? Her simplistic interpretation of the world is rearing its head again--writing that does not meet her aesthetic requirements is therefore not meant to "elevate the heart." From a political perspective, this is troubling because, hey, depression or helplessness (like anger) are legitimate reactions from the oppressed.

Post-apocalyptic, post- or mid-holocaust? You say that's a grim place to go on a daily basis, yet we both do it every day, don't we? We're living in it, Neal. Did you think it was still in the future? Read the daily paper. How do I hold myself there? I read the daily paper. How do I recover? I don't. Do you?"

...It's not entirely clear to me what she means here? This is either perfectly fine, e.g. she is talking about literal modern genocidal issues. Or she's not speaking internationally/intersectionally, in which case it's weirdly erasing of, you know, victims of the Holocaust. I would generally give her the benefit of the doubt, but her race/etc issues twang. Let's go with benefit of the doubt anyway.

except in the afterlife, where some literary writers could choose to go so they could revel in describing the awful"


Displacement, homelessness, outcasts, disposable persons . . . Without getting into personal history, many young women of my generation felt all those things very much. They saw their brothers sent to better schools, they saw men given better jobs than women, they saw their male colleagues elevated over them with promotions that women better deserved. It's better now. That doesn't mean it's gone."


That doesn't mean we can't live in cities like ants and eat algae soup for centuries, but the Earth of infinite variety and beauty will be dead and, once that has happened, nothing we do will mean very much."

I guess this is arguable from a certain perspective, but it's very dismissive of the lives of the (admittedly imaginary) people concerned. Back to the idea that some people aren't really people.

If we taught history the way we teach popular music, it might serve as a kind of racial memory. We focus too much on people and dates and not enough on movements and consequences.


Mother Teresa would have done more for humanity by convincing the poor of India to use birth control than she did by being sainted.

So. Of course, this exists in a world in which the stuff Nicoll is talking about in the other thread (first comment) also exists. So, that's point one. Basically point two is that westerners are extremely keen on telling brown people especially, and poor people generally, how many babies they should have because OTHERWISE DOOM. People from those populations push back at the idea by, you know, pointing out that the kind of ecological impact from an Indian child is nowhere like the kind of ecological impact from the average American child. We do not need to prevent brown people from having children in order to save the world; given the history of A) colonialism generally and B) white people attempting to prevent brown people from having children, the fact that this is a popular talking point solution is very disturbing. Additionally, research indicates that birth rates lower when women are given economic resources and education. The idea that one should take away options from women, rather than giving them options--all in order to achieve the same effect--is not awesome. Also, at one point, IIRC, (I don't know if it's still true), India had a number of political seats reserved for women (good) but whether or not women could access them was dependent on how many kids they'd had (not good), and Tepper's comments exist in that world. (ETA: This is apparently incorrect--see also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Reservation_Bill--my apologies for the misinformation and for my misconception. Thanks to @jayaprakash) Tepper may not be aware of this shit, but at some point, if she's advocating policies that require taking over the bodies of poor brown people, it sort of becomes her obligation to be aware.

The lower castes in India live under a curse, a real curse, imposed again by the higher-ups, religiously speaking

She's v. interested in India. Which is cool, but then again also disturbing—why is it her go-to example when she seems either A) unaware of the cultural/political/contextual considerations, and/or B) is aware of them, but doesn't think/see that they affect her argument?

If I were ruler of the Earth, I would dictate that no man who creates an evil may have his picture or name published. Shoot ten kids at school, it can be reported on an inside page in small letters, but the name and face of the person who did it is anathema

This is interesting.

Children raised on the worship of notoriety have no limits. They have only desire to be known.


There is absolutely no difference between a writer doing a book about torture and pain for the delectation of perverts and a Roman emperor ordering a few dozen or hundred slaves into the arena to be tortured and killed by gladiators or beasts for the delectation of perverts

Okay. Back to the black/white thing. Also, just sort of general no. The signifier is not the signified. Writing about rape is not the same as rape—even if it is written for the delectation of perverts! Thank goodness. The most immediate way this intersects with feminism problematically may be sex; it's one thing to criticize the social fetishization of power dynamics that may fuel BDSM, another to confuse the practice of BDSM (or writing about same) with actual rape, violence, etc. Frankly, I think the issue is way broader than that—it minimizes/erases actual violence, for instance—but that's a concrete weirdness that has an affect on many feminists' lives. Also, it's a weirdly unempathic view of political/aesthetic opponents—they don't want to elevate the heart? They only want to offer delectation to perverts? Really? That's what horror writers are like? Has she ever met one? Does she know she IS one?

Our children are also taught what entertainment is. Rap singers teach.

The first example of bad messaging to kids that occurs to you is a form of music associated with people who are black and poor?

My perception of those of value to the world has not changed in fifteen years, or twenty-five, or fifty, or seventy

…okay, but the integration of feminist politics into cultural analysis isn't the only thing that's happened in that time. There's also been a lot of advancements in, e.g., science, indicating that, e.g., sociopathy is not inherent in newborns. Also, intersectionality—there's been progress in mainstreaming arguments about cultural appropriation, racism, homophobia, ableism, etc. And it's pretty clear she's been out to lunch on these things. Maybe because she doesn't think she needs to adapt to new info.

I feel as I did when I was eighteen and first introduced to the reasoning of Malthus

…despite changing contexts or critiques?

They told me to give it to a male applicant at a certain salary with these words: "I know that's more than you were making, but he's a man." The fact that I was supporting two children and that he was a retired army major on full pension, supporting no one but himself, made no difference…. I'm angry. Thinking of this makes me angry.


I personally detest authoritarianism

…? But not forced sterilization or reclassifying people as not-human and then saying it's okay for violence to be enacted on them?

and, they are tribal. Tribal religions, languages, and cultures are bad news. No one with any sense would ever start a war with a tribal country because you would never have any way of knowing who the enemy is at any given time. It took Bill Clinton a few short weeks to figure this out. Bush will never figure it out if he lives to be a hundred. You can conquer and dominate a tribal country, as "the Raj" did in India, but you cannot "work with it" to instill democracy or any other "-cracy." And if you turn over a country to a tribal people, it turns overnight into a tyranny with one tribe dominant.

Ooooookay. So, religions that she detests have features in common. This could be not so racist; e.g. American Christianity could be one of those religions. But one of the features these religions share is being tribal, a word associated with brown people, and sure enough, they are immediately & directly put in contrast with white Americans. Then we have this interesting "you can't work with tribal people" thing which puts them in contrast to white people who apparently can be worked with? India is not a democracy because it is a tyranny with a single dominant tribe? By the rules set out here, America ISN'T a tyranny with a single dominant tribe? You can't "turn the country over" to brown people because they will run it wrong? Seriously?

That concludes analysis of the part of the interview that didn't become horribly controversial. The end requires its own comment, at least.

Also, some interesting sentiments that kind of get lost in the other stuff.

Right. The money quote:

If a law doesn't work, the Court of Equity can abolish it, just like that. They can act in any case where injustice is believed to exist.

An unchecked thing is sort of scary, but whatever; this is a fantasy. I'm giving her this just like I give her the omniscient awesome never-wrong aliens.

Humans cannot purposefully injure others. They have to be capable, once adults, of controlling what they do. Persons who look human but who are uncontrollable or who habitually hurt other people will no longer be defined as human.

Okay. So. Humans who habitually hurt other people will no longer be defined as human. Someone said in your other thread that it must be very hard to see people as inherently good and realize, daily, that they aren't. Sometimes people are complex. Sometimes humans habitually hurt people in some ways and do other stuff, too. So, let's chalk this up to black and white thinking, but I'm going to basically give it to her with the assumption that if she was explicating, she would define what "habitually hurt" means (does colonialism count?)

Then there's the whole "controlling what they do" thing. This is where the ableism/crazy bit comes in, esp because she later uses the word crazy in what appears to be an explication of what "can't control yourself" means. A generous reading indicates that she means that she's declassifying people who HURT OTHERS because they can't control what they do, but that's not exactly what she said. She said OR. I hope OR wasn't what she meant. It probably wasn't. Right? But invoking crazy people and then talking about eugenics (via forced sterilization) also invokes this lovely history America has of forcibly sterilizing people in institutions. Have you read WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME? I assume so? Classification of uncontrollable or crazy is influenced by cultural factors. See also: drapetomania. But more troubling is that the kind of walled city she later invokes reads like some of the abuses perpetuated (historically and contemporarily) by institutions. She's advocating for the kind of cruel treatment crazy people already sometimes get. Again, maybe all this is unintentional, but when you're making this argument, especially while taking on the mantle of advocating in the name of social justice, it's sort of incumbent on you not to stomp on the necks of already oppressed groups, yeah?

Every person born of human parents is not necessarily human. Those born to other parents might be, however. Probably the bonobos are human.

I'm not inclined to pick on her too much for this, but a commenter on my blog did point out that she says "the bonobos" not "some bonobos." Humans can be disqualified, but bonobos are a monolith? I expect this was just… a turn of phrase… but it does also suggest that she thinks of some humans (based on behavior) as lower than non-humans (who are not being judged by behavior). Race implications of saying humans one does not like are not people, particularly then going on to invoke ape imagery? And also in, as someone in your earlier thread said, the context of black men in prison populations like the proposed walled city? Like whoa. See also: PETA campaigns where slaves are compared to chickens; lynched men to hung meat; Jews to penned pigs.

The idea that a term in prison "pays a debt to society" shall be stricken from the vocabulary… Aren't you really sick of reading about some guy who's been arrested six times for driving drunk and finally jailed after killing a family of five, and now he's getting out because he's "paid his debt to society"? Who thought up that idiocy?

…people who thought prison systems as punishments weren't very effective and should be refocused on rehabilitation?

People who purposefully hurt others may not—ever—be released to move about in society. This includes crazy people, alcoholics, and addicts who cannot be permanently cured.

Plus side: this gives strength to the argument that she really didn't mean "or" above, that she only meant that "uncontrollable" non-persons who hurt others are non-persons. Minus side: everything ever about discrimination against mentally ill people?

None of this, "Oh, he's fine when he's on his meds, but he forgets to take his medicine.

Which has no cultural factors at all? It's totally awesome to ignore the ways in which medicine aversely affects people? The ways I which medicines don't always work? The ways in which it varies over time? And yes, I know this is a fantasy world, but in the real fucking world, access to medicines is not always possible! And in the real world, there are structural barriers that throw barriers in the way of mentally ill people, who, living in a society wherein they are pathologized, may not always have the resources to take their medications. In fantasy world, are people who are disabled given the supports they need to make sure they're always functional? I hope so? Again, I get that maybe Tepper is just fantasizing, but the "hey, when you're chatting about classifying already oppressed groups as inhuman, maybe you should consider the context" thing continues to apply.

The cities for nonhumans will not get overcrowded because the inhabitants will probably kill each other off fairly regularly.


Seriously, what the fuck? This is the logic that makes prison rape an ongoing nightmare. This is the logic that chains jailed women giving birth. This is the logic that feeds prisoners green meat. This is the logic that waterboards, that puts prisoners in stress positions, that pries off their fingernails, that presses them with weights, that carves out their organs before putting them in the fire.

And another thing. Look, if you're a radical, then police brutality is something you should be fucking aware of. State abuses are something you should be aware of! Police killing black people on a regular basis and not being punished for it is something you should be aware of. I don't know if I agree with the prison abolition argument, but it's there; it's this progressive idea that demands response when someone talking about social justice is making an argument about the awesomeness of deliberately violent prisons. Is the violence of the system really that much more awesome than the violence perpetuated by individuals?

Are all the arguments about the death penalty going out the window, too? The death penalty applies for everything? Really? Super really? And it's just okay? And I don't think judging fantasies by the real world is always awesome, but with all this other shit going on, too, I really have to ask--in this real world, wherein black people are imprisoned at enormous rates, wherein the apportionment of the death penalty is vastly influenced by race and class, wherein people who are determined to have significant cognitive impairments are killed… is it really a great idea to argue that whatever, it's fine for anyone who contravenes Tepper law to just die?

Walled cities will be built in the wastelands and all nonhuman persons will be sterilized and sent to live there, together, raising their own food

Yay forcible sterilization. This might be less disturbing if so many of her books did not have "yay eugenics" themes. Just ranting? Maybe? But she rants like this a lot. And it's somehow super easier for white, first world ladies to come back to the idea that "oh, eugenics could really work IF ONLY WE IMPLEMENTED IT CORRECTLY" than it is for people who, you know, MIGHT BE SUBJECTED TO IT.

There will be no traffic in, no traffic out, except for studies that may be done which might lead to a "cure."

A… cure? A cure for what? Combined with earlier ignorant comments about psychology, this is more WTF.

There will be no chat about this sequestration being "inhumane," because the persons so confined are not human by definition… The cities for nonhumans will not get overcrowded because the inhabitants will probably kill each other off fairly regularly.

As Heron said on my blog, "I've yet to see an exception to the rule that anyone who is willing to definite some adults as not-human &/or inherently deserving of exclusion or limited civil rights is not worth listening to." And as Grace Annam said on Alas, "Every OTHER time in human history when we penned certain classes of people into concentration camps … excuse me, “walled cities”, it worked out so well. What could go wrong?"

Sorry, angry capital letters coming: IT IS NOT OKAY TO REDEFINE SOME PEOPLE AS NOT HUMAN AND THEN TAKE PLEASURE IN IMAGINING THEM SUBJECTED TO VIOLENCE. This is why the doctrine of hell is creepy as fuck! She says earlier in the interview that "We all see how the afterlife bit is playing out today"—well, what is this fantasy of walling people who hurt others off and letting them be tortured except what is, effectively, a veiled version of hell?

Just a rant? Maybe. Maybe just a rant. Certainly better if it's a rant! But a rant that supports eugenics from a woman who writes books where eugenics is a solution that works. A rant that supports authoritarianism from a woman that claims to hate it. A rant about how some people aren't really human from someone who claims to be interested in social justice. A rant that classifies addicts and the mentally ill as less than other people. A rant that, hey, revels in torture and pain because apparently Tepper finds imagining that satisfying.

Who's going choosing to go to hell so they can revel in describing the awful?
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