I Can’t Promise I Will Never Be Problematic: A Twitter Thread

Archived here for posterity.

1. Recent events have prompted some folks to ask me to assure them that I will never be problematic, so they can continue to read my work with a clear conscience. Folks, I have some real bad news for you: I can’t promise that, and here’s a thread on why. Ready? Let’s begin.

2. To begin, I can’t promise that because I have already been problematic at various points in my past — I’ve shown my ass in a number of ways. I try to listen to friends/others when I do show my ass, and do better, but it has happened before, and will probably happen again.

3. I can’t promise because there are gaps in my personal knowledge and experience, and sometimes I will do/say something problematic because I didn’t know, and also, I didn’t know I didn’t know. What one does from there is important, but I’ll still trip over lines I didn’t see.

4. I can’t promise because what’s problematic is a moving target, with different people, different audiences and different groups. What might be fine with one group (and a group close to me) might not with others. I try not to do harm but I also accept the view on that differs.

5. And I can’t promise because sometimes it may be that what I believe to be moral and correct may be different or even in direct opposition to what you believe is moral and correct, and we might not be able to bridge that gap (or want to). When that happens we can talk…

6. … and perhaps through discussion come to a better understanding. But sometimes we might not, or one or both of us might decide that discussion is futile in any event, so why bother. In which case: Hi, I’m problematic, and that’s where we are.

7. As an example, there are a fair number of people on the US political right who won’t touch my work because they see my personal political and social positions and are all “yeah, no,” and I’m fine with that because I’m comfortable with my positions and their response to them.

8. (There’s also some on the left! Although not as many, but even so I’m a pretty damn corporate straight white dude, and that’s a thing.)

9. Now, here’s a thing: I do try to learn and try to grow and to be decent to people. I’ve accepted I’ll be wrong, and I work to mitigate when I am. But I can’t promise I won’t fuck up, and when I do, I can’t promise you’ll always be happy with how I work to be better.

10. When and if that happens, and you decide you can’t hang with me or my work anymore, then take your leave of me. There’s a wide world of creators out there. Find the ones that speak to you. I understand that will happen, and that you may criticize me as you go. That’s fair.

11. In sum: I can’t promise I won’t ever be problematic, for whatever set of criteria you use to determine that. What I can promise is that I’ll always be aware I’m not perfect, and will continue to work on myself. It’s up to you to decide, as we go along, if that’s sufficient.

12. And this is the end of this particular tweet thread. To show my appreciation for your attention, please accept this picture of a cat. Thank you.


35 Comments on “I Can’t Promise I Will Never Be Problematic: A Twitter Thread”

  1. It’s just not possible to please all of the readers all of the time.

    That’s why it’s called taking a stand.

  2. John Scalzi, Twitter Relationship Counselor.

    Are you going to start charging $500/hr for a 50-minute hour?

  3. Mr. Scalzi:

    I would have gone a different way.

    I would pictured myself in blackface shaving swastikas onto pussycats on live TV (clearly problematic,)

    With that picture in my mind I would have said, or written “I promise to never be problematic,” and it would have been truthful.

    Problem solved, no need for lengthy disclaimers.

    Since the bar for problematic was undefined you were free to set it.

  4. I think we are all problematic at some point or another to someone or another. It means we are human, and different, and flawed. As you say, we do our best, and try to learn and if appropriate, change, hoping for better. If change is not warranted, then at least understanding that differences happen.

  5. Not being problematic would be both uninteresting and unchallenging. I would hate that. Please continue to be problematic in ways you think are justified. Otherwise, where is the growth?

  6. Talking about Pat, now a quite problematic character, Julia Sweeny said something wise: Don’t overestimate your own wokeness. In thirty years, your movie dialogue hailed today as progressive may be dismissed because you were eating a hamburger in that scene. Stuff changes.

  7. Cogent. Well reasoned. One point I would add: people are not just one thing. J K Rowling recently affirmed she has issues with transgender identities (according to snopes anyway). Locally, there is a person who created our “Green Line” (a boundary of nature past which dwellings may not be built). Very environmentally conscious. Also an admitted Islamophobe (sp?). Some of these kinds of things make my head hurt, but that is the complexity of human consciousness. Michael Jackson is on this sort of list for some people as well. Perhaps judging the person’s corpus by other things in their personality is not as useful as it might be.

  8. The belief that you should sanitize your reading by only reading people who are “not problematic” reminds me uncomfortably of the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, who, I’m sure, would be considered ‘problematic’ by many.

  9. Just keep posting cat pics, I promise you will never be problematic with that.

    My entire internet life:

    Cat pics
    Cat pics
    Cat pics
    Cat pics
    Cat pics

    We’re in a brave new world..

  10. Of course Scazi’s gonna be problematic eventually. Just wait until he says something about Rise of Skywalker.

  11. And this is why I think you will never be problematic, in the global sense of the word… The key to not being problematic is the Wheaton Rule. You follow it. Other people may view you as such, but that’s on them, not you…

  12. I probably wouldn’t agree with you on some things and agree with you on others but that wouldn’t matter to me unless you went too far but the problem is how to judge if you have gone too far? Robert Heinlein wove some pretty objectional themes in some of his stories such as cannibalism and incest and didn’t lose readers because he was a fantastic writer and could pull it off. If you wrote something I violently didn’t agree with I couldn’t say that I would never ever read your books again because it would depend on how you wrote it. Would you be able to “pull it off” as did Heinlein?

    Since you live near where I was born and raised I would give you the benefit of the doubt since by moving to Ohio you showed excellent judgement so I know you are a perceptive fellow.

  13. I don’t always agree with you, but you address most things (that I care about) very well. So I’m willing to listen to you, whether I find you ‘problematic’ or not.

    Keep on keeping’ on!

  14. We are ALL problematic to someone somewhere. If I stopped reading authors who have committed offense in some manner, I’ll be left with reading ingredient labels (and praying that the people writing those remain shrouded in mystery). So I separate the work from its creator.

  15. And, here’s the argument for separating the artist from the art, especially if you really just want to enjoy the art. Or, as I like to say, sometimes breakfast tastes better if you don’t know how the sausage is made.

  16. Paul Hayes – Let’s avoid repeating misinformation. The Snopes article on J.K. Rowling specifically rejects the claim that she has “confirmed” an issue with trans identities. It gives reasons people suspect she has an issue, but she has never confirmed, or clearly stated, that.

  17. I have found that my level of discomfort with problematic creators is the time when I decide not that I dislike something they’ve said or an opinion they hold but when I find their behavior/beliefs/politics so problematic that I don’t want to cause money to flow in their direction. And for me, that simply means that I’ll only check their books out from the library/listen to their music on the radio/otherwise access their work without paying for it (preferably legally). There is no Michael Jackson on any of my Spotify playlists, for example. And if I have real problems with an author, I won’t request a library hold, but will only check it out if I come across a book on the shelves. If I really want to read something by an author I don’t even want the library to buy more of, I can even go to the library and read the book in the building so I never check it out. So I can separate the work from the creator if I can access the work without giving them money.

  18. I don’t think one can be “problematic” as long as they are open to the possibility of there being problems with their views.

    IMO, those who are problematic are those who refuse to even enterntain the idea that they might be wrong.

    Unintentionally offending someone is a sad occurence, but by no means a character flaw.
    If you keep on doing it, or blame the offended instead, THAT is where the problem begins.

  19. What the heck does “problematic” even mean? Are there seriously people asking you to promise that you will never make a mistake, or say anything that bothers them? What kind of nut cases are those?!

  20. Rejutka, it is perfectly possible to offend someone by saying, “the world is round”, or “brown people should be allowed to vote”. In such cases, blaming the offended party is entirely appropriate.

  21. Today on the BBC website is a story about young Swedes living on their own, a thing that would be problematic in other parts of their own continent, let alone Asia, as it is interpreted as rejecting their family. My own worldview, just by reading such web sites, becomes problematic to others.

    For many years I have not been tied to the concrete realistic present world-space, but instead I appreciate the world in terms of space-time.

    Alas, how hard it is to talk to someone about something important, such as UN peace, if they are locked in to the present year… It’s like pitching a possible movie to a Hollywood executive who knows and talks only movies, but never sees any stage plays or reads any books, let alone the classics. (This really happens)

  22. John, you once again demonstrate that you are an adult. Thank you, and keep up the good work.

  23. DP Wally, here is what I read: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/jk-rowling-transphobia-transgender/
    Here is what I said: “J K Rowling recently affirmed she has issues with transgender identities (according to snopes anyway).”
    Here is the specific for what I wrote (from snopes): “However, Rowling broke her silence on trans issues in December, in a way that indicated she does indeed hold trans-exclusionary and trans-skeptical views”

    I appreciate you wanting to slow or stop the spread of disinformation. I support that wholeheartedly. In examination of my statement, I still think my statement matches what snopes said. I think the article is clear, and shows the meme that is going about is a mixture of true and untrue.

    Also, if you take exception to JK Rowling as an exemplar, I am fine with any of another set of choices. Many have been in the news (and indeed, on this very site) in the last year or so (for example John Campbell). The real point I want to make is that we can separate art from artist.

  24. But … but he posted a cat picture. Is this not problematic? The cat receives none of the benefit from its photograph. The cat is being exploited. Oh, rise up, ye oppressed felines! Rise up! You have nothing to lose but the yarn in which you are entangled!

  25. Mmm…. I am loathe to enter the fray but here goes… “problematic” is used as a polite placeholder for impolite actions. If this column was entitled “I can’t promise that I will never be racist”, I suspect that we would probably have the same number of “everybody is a bit racist so it won’t effect my spendings habits” but a few less of the cat comments. I am kind of uncomfortable of using “problematic” as cover rather than people owning up to hateful actions. Rowling is personally disturbing because I had just seen the sublime Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and I am disappointed that she has clarified her remarks for better or worse. It is possible that everyone is “problematic” but hopefully everyone isn’t racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, antisemitic, pedophiliac, or animal torturers.

  26. I think there’s a difference between artists who are problematic but whose art is (arguably) not problematic, and artists whose art reflects the problematic aspects of the artist.

    People like JK Rowling and Marion Zimmer Bradley I would say fall into the first category. The topic of transgender women — or gender-bending at all — doesn’t come up in the Harry Potter series, and I don’t recall sexual abuse of children coming up in Bradley’s stories.

    Woodie Allen falls into the second — a number of his films seem (to me) to express his attitudes about him having sex with underage girls, not to mention his narcissistic attitude towards sex and towards women in general.

  27. I think I have never met anyone who wasn’t ””problematic” at one time or another. Humans are amazing and complex creatures, and overall this is a good thing. When the hell did we all become each other’s moral police, anyway? Also, nice cat pic, looks very comfortable, couldn’t care less about the politics of the people who feed and pet him. We could maybe learn from this.

  28. Artists? Writers? Call me friendly, but I assume any sf writer—even if we aren’t friends—can write of a planet controlled by women, (when Enterprise computers were given female voices) crime families (A piece of the action) or a computer god named Landrew, all during the same decade, without believing in sexism, crime, or the wrong god. (While every right-thinking American knows that democracy is sacred—outside the art studio)

    “What are friends for?” I will tell you: Friends not only disagree when I am problematic, but they say they disagree, so I become less imperfect. Equally important: Friends give me a Margin Of Safety so that I can make my mistakes. As I do in turn for them.

    If some zero-tolerance totalitarian (left or right) loves his “joy of outrage” more than “nurturing me in the margins” (So far, has never happened) then all I can do is pray they find other friends, because they won’t have me for a friend.

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