Who Killed Steampunk? A Response to My Critics

My last story, “Who Killed Steampunk?“, provoked a lot of comments, both here and on social media. I’ve tried to read all of them, but I couldn’t respond to everyone individually, so let me follow up here.

Most of the criticism fell into one of three categories:

  1. You’re ignoring the convention and music scene.
  2. You’re trying to force your view of steampunk on others.
  3. You’re blaming “social justice warriors” and providing a refuge to misogynists and racists.

Each of these arguments deserves a more thorough response than fits in a tweet.

“Conventions and music is where steampunk lives now”

I began the article by excluding the convention and music scene from my analysis. My interest is in art, fiction and the online fandom. I didn’t want to write about something I don’t know well. Many of the responses argued that conventions and music is where steampunk lives now.

If that’s true, then perhaps it’s not steampunk that has died but the steampunk I used to know.

Authors joined the discussion to report that publishers have become less interested in steampunk fiction. That suggests there is less demand for stories. Others pointed out that I didn’t mention the 2018 film adaptation of Mortal Engines. That’s my bad, although I’m not sure that movie proves steampunk is doing fine. Others yet agreed that the attempt to turn steampunk into a far-left ideology had scared away newcomers and soured oldtimers.

Steampunk has changed. There is far less of the steampunk I grew up with.

Which is a good segue to…

“You’re trying to tell us what to do!”

Most steampunks agree that self-appointed gatekeepers did more harm than good. Anyone who has read Never Was, and The Gatehouse before it (not all the critics have; I was also accused of not having done my homework when I’ve been writing about steampunk since 2005), knows that we’ve always kept an open mind about the definition of steampunk (examples here and here). We fought — for years! — against those who tried to write steampunk rules and force them on others (examples here and here).

It’s hardly fair to accuse me of gatekeeping when I resisted gatekeeping from the moment I became involved in steampunk.

I deliberately ended the article with a call to experiment and push the boundaries. (A few readers admitted to not having read to the end, but that didn’t stop them from criticizing.) If the result is that steampunk changes in a way I personally dislike, that’s too bad for me, but steampunk doesn’t exist for my sake. It belongs to all of us. I’ll keep doing my thing, you do yours, and we’ll see which of us thrives. Maybe we both will.

“You’re providing a refuge to misogynists and racists”

The argument is by resisting the politicization of steampunk, I make it possible for misogynists and racists to hide in it. That’s not what I want, and the discussion in the last couple of weeks has clarified for me exactly what it is I oppose: I am against steampunk as politics, not against politics in steampunk. (Longtime readers may remember that we explicitly allowed politics in our message-board community, the Smoking Lounge, when The Steampunk Forum at Brass Goggles banned it and we devoted an entire issue of our e-zine, the Gatehouse Gazette, to politics and steampunk.)

What I’ve resisted is the attempt to turn steampunk into an ideological movement. Steampunk appeals to people of different political beliefs. I am not an anti-capitalist and I like steampunk. Those two are not contradictory.

What I don’t object to is the effort to raise awareness around issues of gender and race and get steampunk to seriously engage with them.

To my regret, I did in the past. When it was pointed out to me some years ago that steampunk content we shared here uncritically recreated Victorian-era stereotypes of Asia and the Middle East, it didn’t cause me to change my mind. Instead, I became defensive. It wasn’t until years later, when I reread the arguments from an emotional distance, that I realized the critics had a point. (That’s when I wrote “Changing My Mind About Victorientalism“.)

The reason I didn’t realize it at the time was that I felt besieged. I was ignorant and naive and suddenly people were calling me a racist and a bigot across the online steampunk community. I was added to a list of “problematic subculture celebs“. People vowed never to read me again. My instinct in the face of all this was not to admit I might have made a mistake, but to hunker down.

I share this not because I enjoy pointing out my flaws, but because I see the same thing happening today and it still drives people away. Make one wrong remark and people you’ve never met or heard of — and who know nothing about you other than the offensive thing you’ve said — will find you on social media, shame you, sneer at you and, if you’re really unlucky, blacklist you. I don’t think this is proportionate. And I know it’s not how you get people to own up to their mistakes.

Some have argued that the feelings of those on the receiving end of bigotry matter more, and that is a fair point. I don’t mean to equate white discomfort with racism. Others have suggested that steampunk may be better off without bigots and racists, especially if it frees up space for marginalized groups. I think that’s too black-and-white. People are not unredeemable. Most want to do the right thing and can be persuaded — but you have to assume good faith.

Nobody is under any obligation to. If you’re white and you want to talk about race, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself first. (I certainly should have nine years ago.) If you’re a man and you want to write from a woman’s point of view, maybe ask a few women for advice? Same if you’re straight and want to write queer characters or if you’re able-bodied and want to write a disabled character.

But what if people don’t? I can understand patience is sometimes too much to ask and staying quiet is not always an option. I also think outrage can be counterproductive.

5 Replies

  • 1) If it’s true that steampunk lives in conventions and music, then it’s lost its power to affect society. Conventions are fun, but exist as self-created ghettos where “we/us” can exist separate from “them,” protected by our secret handshakes and incomprehensible in-jokes, elitist and self-important…and marginalized. Music? Really? What radio station would that be on? I would be surprised if your average member of society has ever heard “steampunk music” outside a Professor Elemental ditty in a “Phineas & Ferb” cartoon. Music unheard affects no one and nothing.

    2) Those protesting the loudest are the ones most guilty of wanting everyone to believe as they believe, to act as they want. They are both gatekeepers and “purifiers”.

    3) As with most politicized movements, those who want to be in charge welcome one and all…except the half they hate. And, of course, those who see racism in everything have never really met any real racists, except those in their own virulent SJW cliques. Personally, I embrace the idea of colonialism as a force for good, in theory, if not in fact; ironically, that doesn’t put me in the camp of racists, but with the colonized… in India, for example, anything with “British” it its name is considered a step above.

    I don’t think steampunk is dead, but it does have a high fever of its own making, and it’s purposely jettisoning all the diversity that once made it strong and a force of potential change.

  • I wouldn’t exactly worry about SJWs complaining at you or feel a need to defend yourself. Remember that they believe that EVERYONE who doesn’t hold the same political views as them is a racist and misogynist.

    These are people who believe that liberalism is white supremacy (eg: https://reason.com/2017/10/04/black-lives-matter-students-shut-down-th) and that “tolerance” and “acceptance” are forms of homophobia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riddle_scale), that is when they’re not excluding gay people themselves (eg: https://reason.com/2016/03/22/lgbt-student-activist-group-says-gay-men/) and literally shutting down Pride parades (eg: https://globalnews.ca/news/5154261/2019-edmonton-pride-festival-cancelled-email-april/).

    Hell, they even DEFINE entire races and genders as racist and misogynist (e.g.: https://badgerherald.com/artsetc/2018/09/20/all-white-people-are-racist-line-returns-as-poignant-reminder/) and have redefined racism because they know that they’re the ones being racist (eg: http://affinitymagazine.us/2017/02/19/dear-white-people-your-dictionary-definition-of-racism-is-wrong/).

    They’re totally cool with being Anti-Semitic (eg: https://thebulwark.com/left-right-left-anti-semitism-marches-on/, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/16/opinion/populism-racism-anti-semitism.html), and being racist to black people who aren’t SJWs (eg: https://youtu.be/IVIoC5ROaHk).

    They not only believe that fundamental human rights should be abolished, but are even willing to engage in violent, racist mob tactics to silence people instead of engaging in vigorous counter-debate, as in this pathetic example from Vancouver: https://www.thestar.com/vancouver/2019/03/13/vancouver-talk-derailed-as-free-speech-versus-hate-speech-conflict-escalates.html).

    “Social justice” is collectivist, racist, and antithetical to individualism, fundamental human rights, and liberal democratic values. It SHOULD be rigorously opposed as the Stalinist, Maoist bullshit it is.

    • Let’s not to tar everyone with the same brush. Some people seem to think I’m a Trump-supporting white nationalist because I don’t agree 100 percent with the social justice agenda. I also see the excesses of this movement, but I don’t think it’s fair to preemptively blame everyone who argues for social justice for them.

      My argument is for recognizing and respecting diversity; diversity of people and diversity of views. My argument is also for balance and moderation. Let’s not fall into the trip of thinking that if you’re not with me, you’re against me. That is the sort of fanaticism that drives people away, which is where this whole discussion started.

      • I forgot to mention that radical leftist SJWs are also against interracial dating now, because of course they see people as actors for identity collectives rather than as individuals: https://youtu.be/L7W7Dk4d1eI

        If a self-declared SJW is willing to denounce and distance themselves from the toxic, racist, collectivist radical SJW left that is against interracial dating, and thinks its okay to call black conservatives racial slurs, and hunts down Greek people to force a Greek community centre to shut down a free speech event, and shuts down Pride parades after trying to violently shake them down for thousands of dollars in extortion money, and says that everyone of a certain skin colour is racist, and act like jackbooted brownshirt thugs who riot to suppress fundamental human rights, and call anyone who disagrees with them racist misogynist Nazis, then yeah, great! I won’t judge them. But at that point are they really an SJW anymore?

        As it is, I’d be more expectant that your call for “balance” and “moderation” and “diversity of views” will be called white supremacist both-side-ism.

      • To be honest, it’s getting ever harder to avoid the fanatics. It’s why I stopped going to a certain science-fiction-writers’ convention — because they were basically haters who spent half their time decrying the lack of diversity while they did nothing to attract new members to the organization. And when I go to a fan convention, the last thing I want to hear is everyone griping about politics or current events.

        It may be that the Steampunk genre is getting a much-needed shakeout now that it’s not in the public eye all the time. Perhaps we’ll move from quantity to quality.

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