Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Open House Day 29 - Ian Whates

Putting the Gender in Genre


Something I’ve been asked more than once in interviews and panels is ‘what’s the next big thing in SF?’ Little did I suspect at any point that the answer was going to be ‘Gender Imbalance’; yet here we are.

Let me say at outset that there is an imbalance, no question, especially in the UK. There are far more male SF authors under contract here than there are female – the exact number of women SF authors seems to vary from discussion to discussion. Everyone agrees on Jaine Fenn, but there is less certainty on whether Justina Robson, Tricia Sullivan, Sarah Pinborough, Lauren Beukes or (most recently) Sarah Cawkwell – the first woman ever to write a novel in the Warhammer 40K universe – should be allowed. Not that it matters. Even if you take all of them into account, there are still too few.

So, who’s to blame? Unfortunately, the current trend seems to be to point the finger at everyone and everything in a sort of knee-jerk reaction. In a discussion on Juliet McKenna’s blog recently, it was claimed that the genre awards in this country reward outstanding male writers only. The fact that Lauren Beukes missed out on this year’s BSFA Award for best novel by the narrowest of margins and then went on to win the Clarke (yay Lauren!), and that the BSFA’s other fiction award went to Aliette de Bodard, was dismissed as an aberration. As was Sarah Pinborough having won BFS Awards for the past two years. Yes, the major awards have seen significantly more male winners than female in the past decade, and if there were a roughly equal number of works by both genders to choose from, that would be unpalatable in the extreme, but sadly there aren’t. That’s where we came in. Given the heavy imbalance of male authors to female at present, what else would anyone expect?

The thing is, as an editor, it’s almost inevitable (given the aforementioned imbalance) that you’re going to fall foul of somebody’s opinion somewhere. I’ve just released the TOC for Solaris Rising, an anthology I’ve been commissioned to produce for (you guessed it) Solaris. I’m both excited by and proud of this book. Of the nineteen stories, four are written or co-written by women: Pat Cadigan, Jaine Fenn, Tricia Sullivan, and Laurie Tom. Already the book has attracted a drearily predictable comment of “How's that mistressworks thing goin'?” from Nick Mamatas. It’s strange, but last year when I released the anthology The Bitten Word (ten female authors, seven male), nobody accused me of being a feminist. Nor was gender commented on that June when I released Anniversaries (seven female authors, two male). I suspect that next month, when I release a new collection of stories by Liz Williams – A Glass of Shadow – with an intro by Tanith Lee and cover art by Anne Sudworth, no comment will be made then either, nor when I release the next NewCon Press anthology Dark Currents in 2012 – which looks set to once again feature more female contributors than male. The detractors are very selective, it seems.

Yes, there clearly is an issue here, but don’t blame the awards for reflecting an imbalance that’s inherent in the pool of material they have to judge, nor the editors… Maybe I should publish an anthology of all women authors at some point to silence the sceptics... No, wait, I already did that a few years ago: Myth-Understandings and I was criticised for doing that (sigh, who’d be an editor?)

So, should we blame the big publishing houses? But a large proportion of their commissioning editors at women, and surely they wouldn’t be biased against their own gender… What then? I think the answer is a lot more fundamental than any of this. I was on a panel with Alastair Reynolds, Tony Ballantyne and literary agent John Jarrold at alt.fiction last weekend. During it, I asked John how many of the hundreds of manuscripts he receives each year are from women. Without hesitation he replied, “80% from men, 20% from women.” John deals with fantasy as well as SF. I didn’t ask for any further breakdown, but I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of that 20% is fantasy, with just a small percentage SF.

Therein lies our problem. It’s not the awards or the editors or the publishers, at least not primarily; the rot goes deeper and is far more fundamental than that. It really does lie at the grass roots. If we want to see more female SF authors coming through, the first thing we have to do is alter the way our genre is perceived by the wider public and make it more open, more accessible, to women. Good luck to all of us with that one.
 

 
The Noise WithinIan Whates lives in a small village in Cambridgeshire. He has some 40 published short stories to his credit and two ongoing novel sequences – the ‘Noise’ books (space opera) with Solaris, and the ‘City of 100 Rows’ series (urban fantasy with steampunk overtones and SF underpinning) with Angry Robot. Ian also edits anthologies, principally via his own multiple award-winning independent publisher NewCon Press, though he has also co-edited a couple of mammoth titles with Ian Watson and has an Earth-shatteringly wonderful anthology due out via Solaris later this year.



34 comments:

  1. If "it’s not the awards or the editors or the publishers, at least not primarily", where is "the rot" that you're talking about? It sounds a lot like you're throwing the blame on female writers...

    Surely it's truer to say there are a lot of factors at every stage that affect the outcome, that gender does affect every stage of the process, to some extent.

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  2. That 80/20 split is still just another vague, anecdotal statistic, though, isn't it? Of those submissions, are the percentage of good manuscripts equal, or is it that women are more cautious about sending their work to an agent so the quality is higher overall?

    If the quality of the manuscripts is equal, is the lower percentage by women reflected in other agents' experience? Or is it reflection of that fact that only 4 out of John's 40 clients are female and hence he doesn't attract so many women writers in the first place?

    There are so many numbers that need crunching before the statistics can support _any_ valid conclusion whatsoever.

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  3. 'I asked John (Jarrold, literary agent) how many of the hundreds of manuscripts he receives each year are from women. Without hesitation he replied, “80% from men, 20% from women.”'


    'That 80/20 split is still just another vague, anecdotal statistic, though, isn't it?'

    Notice the contradiction?

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  4. Well, if less women are submitting it could be because they perceive the publishing environment itself to be hostile towards women writers.

    Have you asked them? The women writers? Why they're not submitting as much as the male?

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  5. I also suspect that if you ask US agents what percentages they have that it's significantly different, so this may simply point out the differences between the US and UK markets, that the latter has a severe problem on its hands. However I have heard from British female authors who have decided to bypass the local market because it's basically a hostile work environment for them. So something is going on, and it's never a good idea to passive-aggressively blame women for something that is largely out of their hands. Maybe if the market was a bit welcoming?

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  6. Ian has asked that I post this on his behalf...

    Sorry, I have no idea where anyone gets the idea I'm throwing the blame at female writers. Certainly that's not implied at any stage (and thank goodness, the writers I know who've read this and commented on FB -- Juliet E McKenna, Lauren Beukes, Sarah Pinborough, and Donna Scott among them -- realise this). Stephen, I can only assume that you in particular didn't read the closing sentences.

    What I'm saying is that there's a perception among the wider public that SF provides stimulating reading for 'boys' and doesn't necessarily cater for 'girls'. That's not universal, of course it isn't, otherwise we wouldn't have any women writing or reading SF at all, but I do believe it's prevalent. If we want to get more women writers coming through, that's the issue we have to tackle, in my humble opinion.

    Blaming the women writers???? What for, for goodness sake? Some of the best SF writers around are women. We simply don't have enough of them...

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  7. And with that post I just got BINGO! OMG! Do I get a prize?

    he he he

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  8. Ian: because you've given everyone else in the publishing process the all-clear. You very clearly say it's not the fault of publishers or editors, and then go on to explain that female writers don't submit enough work, and say "Therein lies our problem."

    And it's true - they don't. But surely gender issues play a role at other stages of the publishing process too?

    When you describe the comments on gender balance in your book as "drearily predictable" that seems dismissive. The problem with the post, taken as a whole, is that it sounds like you're saying "gender issues aren't my fault and please stop complaining about them".

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  9. The interesting thing to me is that in the anthologies that Ian cites, it's the "special interest" ones that have greater female representation. The Bitten Word sounds like vampire tales... not general science fiction, and a subject that's heavily woman-oriented as more vampire fiction seems to be published as supernatural romance than straight up SF/F. Dark Currents is harder to pin down from the name but it sounds... well... dark. Like those very same neo-gothicy romances.

    And Myth-Understandings? From what I can tell, that's a collection of stories centered around mythic elements (continuing the "girls get unicorns and dragons, boys get spaceships and lasers" divide) and communication.

    And then, we have Solaris Rising... what's that? A general collection of general science fiction. Like those "Year's Best" and "Masters of" anthologies that are so male-heavy.

    It's funny how this works out. When you edit an anthology of stories about vampires or gothicy stuff or mythic elements, you get a boatload of women. When you edit an anthology with no theme other than "quality science fiction", what do you end up with?

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  10. I'm sorry, but I may be missing something here - surely stories can only be considered for publishing if they're written in the first place?

    In my admittedly limited experience it's unusual to find a woman writing an SF story, and I put that down to the fact that SF as a way to spend your time seems to be of more interest to men than women. I don't see anything wrong in that - people should be free to pursue their interests however they want (within legal reason...) - if a woman wants to know more about Chelsea Football club, fine; if a man wants to find out about Manolos, so be it. But if more men than women are interested in SF, then that naturally leads to an overall imbalance in the stories being published, all else being equal.

    That doesn't mean I don't want to see more women involved in the world of SF as fans, writers, professionals, or in every way. But I'd suggest that's down to spreading the word about SF and telling more people about it than changing it and the industry which supports it - and so risking throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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  11. "Spreading the word about SF"...?

    The problem isn't that women haven't heard of SF. The problem--inside the industry and out of it--is that it's seen as a man's game, a male pursuit. Trying to change that without changing the industry would be like trying to throw out the bathwater using a tea strainer, to stretch an analogy.

    Telling women that SF exists won't produce more women writing SF, or make those women more keen on polishing their work and submitting it. Showing women that SF welcomes them will do that. Doing that is going to require change, no ifs, ands, or buts.

    The good news is there is absolutely no downside to this. Changing the industry to make it more welcoming to women isn't going to result in anybody punching you in the nuts or all phaser pistols spontaneously turning into tampons.

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  12. "In my admittedly limited experience it's unusual to find a woman writing an SF story."

    Well, that's not very surprising - It would be unusual to find a man writing an SF story either. I don't think most people write fiction very much, and of the people writing fiction a small subset of those write what you'd call science fiction. Also, people writing fiction often don't do it where one can easily find them, and accordingly the subset of people writing SF would be harder to find, and the further subset of women writing SF would be even harder.

    Unless you meant that out of the subset of writers who write SF it's unusual to find a woman...

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  13. I didn't say women hadn't heard of SF, what I tried to say was that it's a numbers game. Not many people know about SF as a pursuit, and if you spread the word to the public as a whole, you increase overall interest and so get more women involved.

    I agree with you that it is seen as a male pursuit. But while it may be worth changing things to encourage more women writers (if that hasn't already been tried) to see what happens, you also have to accept that the different genders find different things interesting. Which, in my experience, means there's a built in imbalance in the world of SF.

    And I also agree there is no downside to more women being involved in SF - I think it would make the whole experience more rewarding for everyone.

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  14. @Samhenderson, uhm yes, I think so. On both counts. :o)

    Amongst the people I know who are interested in SF, most are male, and amongst those I know who are writing SF, the majority are male. If that clarifies?

    And as for finding any SF writers in RL...well, that's like finding a fiver you'd forgotten about. Pleasantly surprising and lifts your whole day.

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  15. Alastair, it could very well be that amongst the people you know those interested in/writing SF are mostly male, even leaving out the possibility that there are women you know who like/write it, or that they like/write SF that you don’t consider SF. But surely that’s an insignificant sample, unless you know a remarkable number of writers. When you say it’s “unusual” to find a woman SF writer, that suggests not that women make up less than half of SF writers, or less than 40%, or less than 30%, but that very few out of the field are women, and a look at the many lists springing up across the ‘net in response to the claim that there aren’t many female SF writers shows that’s not the case.

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  16. "the possibility that there are women you know who like/write it"*

    *who like/write it and don't tell you

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  17. Sam-
    You rock! How've you been?

    Alistair-
    You don't think an attitude like that is what's keeping women from submitting/publishing SF? A hostile enviroment keeps people from subbing, and saying its a boy's club makes it hostile. Same with WOmen don't write it, etc.

    Because really, that's ignoring 60+ years of classic SF written by some great, amazing, female writers. Women do write it, and publish it. It's just that a lot (I assume) feel that being picked on, told that they're inferior or not allowed seems like too much trouble, and they just go somewhere else.

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  18. A Nonny Moose29 June 2011 16:59

    "In my admittedly limited experience it's unusual to find a woman writing an SF story"

    I can't believe this conversation is taking place, considering the Invisibility of Women in SF meta conversation that has JUST taken place in the last 6 weeks. There are resources people. Use them. How can you possibly be dragging this back to 101? See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil...women in SF are "unusual"? GAHHHH.

    "nobody accused me of being a feminist"

    Seriously, you think reverse sexism is a thing?

    My forehead is dented.

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  19. Something I’ve been asked more than once in interviews and panels is ‘what’s the next big thing in SF?’ Little did I suspect at any point that the answer was going to be ‘Gender Imbalance’; yet here we are.

    Gender imbalance isn't the "next big thing" in anything; it's been going on for millennia. Women's attempts to address it have been going on for decades, possibly centuries. If you haven't noticed it before now (I honestly had to check the date on your post I was so flabbergasted) then you just haven't been paying attention.

    For some contrasting anecdata, most of the sf writers and people wanting to write sf that I know personally are women. But then, just like those who say most of the sf writers they know are men, this really says a whole lot more about the people I know than it does about sf writers....

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  20. My thoughts. I bowl (as lot's of old codgers do - but we have teenagers in our team, I hasten to add). It used to be a men's sport. No women allowed. So the women started their own organisation and ran their own leagues (which they still do). The men then let the women into their sport and now play alongside each other. So we now have women's leagues and mixed leagues (but no men-only leagues, at least not in my area). Kind of turned upside down.

    What's that got to do with the gender imbalance in SF? I don't know, but ask me again when women have taken over the world.

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  21. Hey Paul - I'm fine - just sitting over here riding my invisible bicycle and writing my invisible SF novel. ; )

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  22. I love Al's writing and respect him a lot, but comments like this raise my blood pressure a bit:

    "...SF as a way to spend your time seems to be of more interest to men than women. I don't see anything wrong in that - people should be free to pursue their interests however they want (within legal reason...) - if a woman wants to know more about Chelsea Football club, fine; [she'll just be as much of a socially unacceptable freak as] if a man wants to find out about Manolos, so be it. But if more men than women are interested in SF, then that naturally leads to an overall imbalance in the stories being published, all else being equal."

    The attitude that 'women just don't like SF' (and in my field, also 'women just don't like science') makes it really hard for me as a woman who likes sf and is a scientist. I have spent most of my life feeling a bit off about my gender identity because if 'women don't like sf/science,' but I do, then I must not be a 'normal' woman--or perhaps not even a woman at all? It leads to some cognitive dissonance that I have resolved mostly by trying to avoid feminine presentations (dresses, jewelry) that would mark me out as a 'woman' in workplace and convention spaces. For instance, I've only just picked up a purse for the first time in my life (I'm 31), and it's only because I'm in maternity clothes that have no pockets, and even then it's from a military surplus store. After all, I have an image (as a non-woman, because 'normal' or 'real' women just don't like sf/science) to maintain! Except that I'm pregnant now, and now *everyone* identifies me as a woman (even if I do sf criticism and science) at a glance and comments on it and it makes me really uncomfortable, like walking into a crowded hall and having everyone go silent and stop to stare at you.

    In an environment that makes you question your own gender identity in order to join the club, I can't imagine why more women don't express an interest in the field. [/sarcasm]

    Sorry for the long and stream-of-consciousness rant there, but I've been bottling that up for a few years. My personal experience is no more indicative of larger trends than Al's personal experience, but I hope my biographical snippet will illustrate that at least occasionally cultural attitudes have concrete consequences on actual people in our society.

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  23. What Karen said has a lot of resonance with me.

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  24. Personally, I think the majority of female authors who would be inclined to write a SF novel are writing Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance.

    Seriously, I have wonderful female author friends in these genres and they kick ass, but there are very few of us guys writing it. 80/20? More like 95% female to 5% male in these genres.

    And UF and PR are, in my opinion, valid offshoots of the SF/F genre. Not that they are the same, but they are kissing cousins.

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  25. Just to clarify, the Alastair above isn't me (Alastair Reynolds). As noted elsewhere, I generally use "Al R" in blog comments.

    The only remotely similar sentiment I might have expressed, a year or two ago, is to note that if women are proportionately under-represented in the hard sciences, it's maybe not too surprising that they're also under-represented in hard SF. But I'm in no way endorsing either situation, and it's not that interesting an observation anyway. I'd very much like to see gender parity in SF and I don't think it's an unreasonable objective. Writers like myself can always do more, of course, and that's why I've been thinking about this a great deal since TOCfail and the recent discussion surrounding the Russ pledge. Hence my recent blog post enthusing about Linda Nagata, for instance. And earlier this year I finished my first collaborative story, and it's with Liz Williams.

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  26. "Personally, I think the majority of female authors who would be inclined to write a SF novel are writing Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance."

    I hope you're suggesting that it's because the SF market is shrinking and there's far more money to be made in UF/PR, not because the latter are "natural" sub-genres for female writers.

    TBH I stopped reading SF after the cyberpunk heyday ran its course, and have thereby lost interest in writing it. That, and a growing pessimism about the future. Also, SF would be a "busman's holiday" for me, since my day-job involves programming web applications for a cutting-edge science project!

    Ironically my "fantasy" novels draw far more on my early enthusiasm for SF than on conventional fantasy tropes. But as my book is set in a period when everyone believed in magic, Clarke's Law #3 dictates that it will be perceived as fantasy :)

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  27. "I suspect that next month, when I release a new collection of stories by Liz Williams – A Glass of Shadow – with an intro by Tanith Lee and cover art by Anne Sudworth, no comment will be made then either, nor when I release the next NewCon Press anthology Dark Currents in 2012 – which looks set to once again feature more female contributors than male. The detractors are very selective, it seems."

    Why should you be patted on the back for doing what you should be doing in the first place?

    If having a gender and color balance of writers is the right thing to do, you just do it. You shouldn't expect everybody to fall over themselves to praise you.

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  28. Hi Ian, just wanted to pop in and give you a bit of support. While I definitely think this is a discussion that needs to be had, I've found that it is better to have it with people who are open to intelligent discussion. It's often a little difficult to move fanatics away from their party line.

    I've been where you are right now, and though it might feel a bit like the eye of Sauron has been turned upon you, let me reassure you that, though vocal, the people who are just blind to any sort of reason are a small minority whose fortissimo does little to hide the fact that their tune is incoherent.

    There are many intelligent discussions on this subject going on elsewhere, without the ad-hominem attacks and kindergarden antics of the people who are aiming at you at the moment. Stay strong and don't let this discourage you!


    This is Gustavo Bondoni, BTW, (can't seem to manage to get my post through with an actual sig)

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  29. A Nonny Moose3 July 2011 03:00

    And in classic Derailing For Dummies style (seriously, look it up) Anon at 8:15 tries to tell upset people how they should feel and behave. Because having a vested interest in this and being sh*t on from a height is nothing to get upset about at all. Oh no.

    *sigh* "Why you so mad?" Really? Have you not read Joanna Russ or understand Privilege 101?

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  30. .I thought editors and publishers should publish the best quality they receive and not check on the gender (race? ethnicity?) of the writer. How does an editor make the anthology more welcoming to women writers? Why should a publisher publish a book by a women rather than a man? Seriously, I'd love to know. (My writer wife hates all the apparent attempts to balance genders -- she says it's positive discrimination and calls it patronising.)

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  31. A Nonny Moose3 July 2011 21:36

    Anon: tell your wife to read Joanna Russ' "How to suppress women's writing" then read it yourself.

    There is no such thing as "reverse" or "positive" discrimination. For a party to discriminate against someone means they need to have the institutional and social power to do it.

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  32. Redheadedfemme says, "Why should you be patted on the back for doing what you should be doing in the first place?"

    Because "what you should be doing" doesn't always accord with what people think needs to be done, and it's important to note the effort when the expectations are exceeded. These are all commercial ventures, and praise and enthusiasm for the project are what signal to others, including aspiring writers, that it's worth the investment.

    Jeff Vandermeer says it better: "[I]f there’s a great anthology or other project you think does a good job of representing writing by women, why not take some time to praise the editors/creators/contributors on your blog or livejournal? We need to recognize that praise goes a long way toward improving morale and energizing people and lifting them up. Public praise also helps signal boost what we love, and make it more likely that what we love will, to put it bluntly, sell well enough to enable more such projects." (emph. mine.)

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  33. Anon wrote: "How does an editor make the anthology more welcoming to women writers?"

    To be welcoming, all it needs to do is offer an equal chance of publication. The reason it's not welcoming is there isn't an equal chance. That's highlighted clearly in some of the responses here... people are so concerned with how to get the hypothetical women who might write science fiction involved, they've walked right past the women who are actually writing science fiction. If someone truly believes that only men write science fiction (apart from a few famous exceptions), they won't notice any new women on the scene, and therefore won't invite them to submit to anthologies. It's not because the women aren't good at writing. It's because the editor doesn't want to see them, as it doesn't fit with the worldview of women not writing SF.

    If there was another anthology with open submissions, it's highly likely women will look at the previous one and say "well, it's clear I'm not welcome... why bother?"

    Men don't have that issue, because no one is saying they don't write science fiction (or that if they do, they're the exception). Men aren't invisible.

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  34. You should feel free to ignore many of your attackers if not all. Nobody much cares what the "Social Justice" crowd in the blogosphere says, and there seem to be fewer of them every day as they cast members out (as ideologues are wont). Grownups are starting to figure out how small and irrelevant this group is, so while a year or two ago we saw writers and editors going to ground, we're seeing less of it now.

    Mamatas is probably the most influential of the lot, which pretty much tells you what you need to know. They're deeply ignorant and unteachable, and everyone has pretty much figured that out by now.

    You serve their selected cause of "Social Justice" rather better than they by doing your best at your job, while they serve it not in the slightest by railing away on the internet.

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