Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Never Complain, Never Explain

I’m the wall with the womanly swagger. – Judy Grahn, She Who

During Thanksgiving dinner at a dear friend’s house, another guest airily stated that climate change is a myth.  An environmental scientist and once a department chair in a well-known university, he now writes regularly for such venues as The Wall Street Journal using arguments along the lines of “There was radical climate change on earth way before humans came along.”  And like many self-satisfied self-promoters, he’s set on Transmit Only.

I was spoiling to kick him in a tender spot of his anatomy and it was obvious the other guests shared my wish.  But then the visit would have revolved around him.  So I looked straight at him and said, “If you really believe this, go discuss it with the people of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives, who are watching their land go under water as we speak.”  We all essentially ignored him for the rest of the visit. We had a terrific time.

I thought of this incident during the Stone Telling 2 roundtable.  Among other questions, Julia Rios, the discussion moderator, asked me, “In your own life you’ve chosen to engage in battles, and to speak out against things you perceive as unjust. How do you reconcile those choices with the costs attached to them, and is there ever a time when you choose not to engage?”

After I had answered Julia’s question, it lingered in my thoughts.  I often say (only half in jest) that humanity consists of several subspecies which happen to be interfertile.  We’re far more hardwired culturally than we’d like to think.  Progressive notions notwithstanding, facts almost never change the minds of adult humans unless something happens to affect them concretely in their health, status or wallet.  Battles against injustice, vested interests, willful ignorance, complacency, cruelty never end.  Before this relentless flood, people like me are Dutch boys with fingers in the dam.

Halfway through my fifth decade, I still haven’t learned to leave well enough alone.  By deed and by word, I’m still fighting on many fronts.  I’ll go to my grave angry, though the waters of Lethe will close over my small efforts as if I’d never been.  Yet after a lifetime of battles, I don’t have even a partial answer about how to engage effectively — especially since anger is still a heavily punished transgression for women.

Naturally, intelligent fighters adjust their strategy and tactics to fit circumstances.  Sometimes you have to be Odysseus, sometimes Alexander.  But I think there are two powerful weapons tikkun paladins need to use more often.  One is laughter.  Another is celebration.  The two share a crucial attribute: they’re not defensive; they assume legitimacy.

Accusing someone of humorlessness is a standard bludgeon used by knuckle-draggers of all persuasions.  “Can’t you take a joke?” is the constant taunt to outsiders grudgingly allowed into previously exclusionary clubs.  In all fairness, much humor relies on Us-versus-Them distinctions.  What’s amazing, though, is how fast bullies crawl off (bawling “You’re mean to me!”) when you turn humor against them.  There’s a reason why satirists and cartoonists are among the first to be arrested in dictatorships.  Of course, this tactic can get you badly hurt or killed.  Men in particular grow furious when women laugh at them.

I once was at another party where the guests were finance professionals.  The host held forth about the deep wisdom of polygamy: it’s nature’s way, our ape cousins have harems (obviously he knew zilch about either bonobos or chimpanzees) and as a dominant male himself, etc.  The other women guests were fuming, but too polite to contradict him.  Finally, I smiled at him sweetly and said, “I agree with you.”  Into the dead silence that ensued, I dropped, “Personally, I could handle at least three husbands.”  The women burst out laughing.  Several of the men spent the rest of the evening huddled in the kitchen, muttering darkly into their drinks.

The other way to short circuit reactionaries is to celebrate.  When some dim bulb bleats “Diversity brings down quality,” my reflex reaction is to verbally rip them to shreds.  However, a far more satisfying response is to issue invitations to a feast and call the endless rosters of Others who excel in a specific domain or task.  Women don’t write space operas?  Andre Norton, Ursula Le Guin, Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.), Joanna Russ, Joan Vinge, C. J. Cherryh, C. S. Friedman, Joan Slonczewski, Octavia Butler, Melissa Scott, Laura Mixon, Sydney van Scyoc, Kristin Landon, Elizabeth Bear, Gwyneth Jones, Liz Williams… without pausing to think and listing just those whose works I’ve read.

Celebration serves a dual purpose.  Not only does it lift the morale of those who stand arrayed against oblivious idiocy; it also prevents (ab)use of the “tone” argument.  Celebration recognizes past achievements and encourages forging ahead, rather than stooping to pick up every piece of broken furniture flung in our path.  Let god-wannabes stew in their own toxic wastes.  We have worlds to build and sustain.

Here’s the small personal roster of worlds I’m part of and want to celebrate as loudly as possible: my modest contribution to alternative splicing regulation and dementia research; Crossed Genres, Science in My Fiction, Stone Telling; my slowly emerging fictional universe, and the artists who depicted it so beautifully: Heather D. Oliver, Kathryn Bragg-Stella; and this site, now starting its fourth year, whose blog portion consistently hovers at high positions in Technorati rankings.

“Well we made a promise we swore we’d always remember,
No retreat, baby, no surrender.
Like soldiers in the winter’s night with a vow to defend,
No retreat, baby, no surrender.”

Bruce Springsteen, No Surrender

Images: 1st, Pict warrior Guinevere (Keira Knightley) in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur; 2nd, andártissa (resistance fighter) in WWII Greece (national historical archives); 3rd, Haldír of Lórien (Craig Parker) in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

14 Responses to “Never Complain, Never Explain”

  1. Rose Lemberg says:

    Ah, yes. Thank you. I needed to hear this.

  2. Bart Leib says:

    Well said! You contributions are appreciated, too!

    (BTW It’s PETER Jackson’s LotR, not MICHAEL Jackson’s)

  3. Athena says:

    Rose, if it helped I’m glad. I don’t like seeing younger people reinvent this particular wheel.

    Bart, as I said in our private exchanges, it’s been an exciting year. Good catch on Jackson, too… first time I ever made this error!

  4. Asakiyume says:

    Definitely accomplishments worth celebrating, and I love that you’ve got friends who can share your world through drawing and painting.

  5. Athena says:

    Thank you, Francesca! Next year, I hope to be able to add “fiction writing” in a substantial way!

  6. Dylan Fox says:

    I have a few things I want to say in response to your post, but I’m afraid they’re all kind of linked to different parts of it. I spent last night trying to arrange them in some coherent fashion, but eventually decided it would be far more concise if I just said what I meant. So, I’ll you’ll forgive my somewhat bitty response…

    People who deny climate change by saying, ‘the world’s climate has always changed by itself’ confuse me. I mean, yes, it has. It changed from being inhospitable to humans to being perfect for us. Their logic seems to imply they would be fine with huge swathes of the world covered in 2 mile thick ice sheets.


    I think you do yourself a bit of a disservice, Athena. Leading by example is one hell of a powerful tool for changing people’s minds, and a willingness to keep fighting is an inspiration. I think changing the world happens by winning over individuals, and those are two of the best ways to do that.


    I’m a huge believer in using humour to bring people down to size. Unfortunately, I seem to suffer from an ongoing case of L’esprit de l’escalier, always thinking of the perfect barb to pop someone’s bubble when it’s far too late.


    And lastly, an echo of what Asakiyume said: Definitely things worth celebrating and shouting from the rooftops about.

  7. Athena says:

    Thank you for the wonderful words, Dylan!

    As for the climate change, the cognitive dissonance is remarkable. He said such things as “We have other things to worry about — like renewable resources and adequate food and water for the current population.” What affects food production and realiability of potable water, Sherlock?

  8. intrigued_scribe says:

    The extent of the disconnect many people manage concerning climate change and other things (and in too many instances, willfully cling to) is just astonishing.

    Wonderfully said!

  9. Caliban says:

    …although Michael Jackson’s LotR might have been…interesting…. 🙂

    I agree: laughter and celebration are excellent tools. Consider how Jon Stewart can even shame the GOP into doing what’s right.

  10. Athena says:

    Shaming works — but only on people who have a sense of shame left.

  11. Julia Rios says:

    Thank you for this, Athena! I’m sorry it took me so long to read it. What with one thing and another, it seems life swallowed all my time until today. You’ve got some excellent thoughts here, though, and I’m happy to have the chance to read them. I love what you say about celebration. I think that’s my default method of coping with oppression, personally. I’m not very good at waging war, though I recognize that it is sometimes necessary, and I admire many who choose that path.

  12. Athena says:

    No worries, Julia! Tactics are dictated by external circumstances. Celebration may be the best method, if we have a choice. Too often, we don’t.

  13. Sue Lange says:

    On this here:” I once was at another party where the guests were finance professionals. The host held forth about the deep wisdom of polygamy: it’s nature’s way, our ape cousins have harems…”

    This is all true, but in nature the males that have harems live very short lives and they end violently. If this financial wizard is willing to die at the age of 25 by having his balls torn off, then he should go ahead, collect up his harem, keeping in mind his number one wife will be as old as his grandmother. And he will be servicing her ten times a day when the time is right as determined by her, not him.

  14. Athena says:

    Sue, you’re right about the details, but there’s an additional important distinction. Among apes only gorillas have harems. Gibbons are monogamous and orangutans are solitary.

    Our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, have clans with parallel female and male hierarchies. Clan status of both sexes is fluid, based on shifting power alliances and defined by maternal status (since paternity is unknown). The males in a clan have status-dependent access to the females in heat. Betas and gammas get to reproduce as well, because status is mutable and also because females exercise choice and often go for the snacho guys. Bonobos are less aggressive and hierarchical than chimpanzees, and their females are co-dominant. In both species, females also travel far to find alternative mates outside the clan.

    So each ape has unique configurations — additionally, it has become largely irrelevant in the case of humans, since our culture has overtaken our biology.