self-oppression and secret cabals

I’m not sure why it seems I’m always talking about stuff going on regarding the community of YA readers and writers when I don’t really read YA, but yet again, something really interesting as caught my attention (most YA may not be to my taste, but all the great conversations it engenders certainly proves, once again, that trivial it is not).

Apparently, there’s a secret cabal of YA writers who will ruin your career if they feel threatened by you/you don’t like their books/you have drama with them on the Internet. Or something. I’m not sure, because again, I’m just a tourist here. This post isn’t, ultimately, about this particular situation, but this particular situation is on the way to it, so please bear with me. John Scalzi has a piece refuting the existence of the cabal, which links to Holly Black’s comments on the supposed cabal, which contains other links to discussion of the supposed cabal in comments.

What sticks out to me about this is that Wow, I have so heard this one before. I heard it regarding interpersonal politics on a BBS twenty years ago, and I hear it in fandom all the time (this community, that community, OMG, BNFs! etc. etc. etc.) and it certainly rears its head with frequency in pretty much every publishing community ever. Hell, maybe people just like fretting about supposed cabals and mafias and all the secret clubs from which they may or may not be being actively excluded.

I mean, I did post that included the Native Society yesterday. It’s not just that everybody wants to be in a secret club. It’s that everybody wants to have the righteousness of being excluded from some secret club. If you think about it, it’s kind of a weird way of feeling important, but it’s certainly effective, and it’s nice sometimes to take the onus off of the far-too-broad-to-effectively-lay-particular-blame structure of society, or luck, or, as is relevant to this writing cabal nonsense, the quality of your stuff and the skill of your networking.

But that’s another discussion lots of people are having who aren’t me, so I’m going to leave that aside for where it’s already happening with more efficacy. What I can’t help but notice is this: these cabal accusations seem, almost always (Scalzi’s refutation aside, and I’m unclear as to whether he was referenced in this or another cabal paranoia or just felt like talking about it), to be directed at women. Maybe that’s because it is arguably in largely women’s spaces that I see this stuff go down (i.e., YA lit; transformative-focused online fandom; etc.), and this whole piece is moot because my lens is just too narrow, but I do think there’s some very real misogyny in play here that’s filled with tropes that go right back to the ideas of Eve and Lilith: as if women are all liars who just won’t stay in their damn places.

That I often also see these accusations also coming from women (but again, this may be a bias in my experience based on where I hang out), is even more disturbing. I don’t need to ask who told you that life is a zero sum game and that the only way to get ahead is to whisper, loudly, behind your hand. I went to all-girls school; I live in this world. I know from whence it comes. But the damage we do to ourselves and others by assuming that sixth-grade Machiavellianism is, not only the only way we can get ahead, but is surely the only way anyone else (any woman) could have possibly gotten ahead is massive. If nothing else, it makes striving unpleasant and introduces a distraction that is derailing to whatever it is we’re actually trying to do.

Look, am I saying there aren’t groups of friends in this world who may not like you or you work and are gossips? Nope. But if you think those groups of friends have complete control over anything, you’re not examining that everything hard enough. You think the world is full secret cabals? Then stop wasting time talking about them, and be sneaky yourself, by figuring out how to navigate around the obstacles you perceive. And the trick to that generally isn’t about complaining about groups of like-minded people who collaborate or support each other in their endeavors or just happen to know each other as colleagues because they work in the same spaces. The laws of the Internet don’t just apply to porn — odds are, if you’re making it, there’s someone out there who wants to buy it.

To be frank, I find the secret cabal talk embarrassing. To me it says, look at how well we’ve let others — not the supposed cabals, but entrenched social structures that benefit from the self-marginalization that occurs when we waste time tearing each other down and jumping at shadows — train us to hold ourselves down.

Don’t buy into that crap. It’s bad.

And if you hate some (successful) people? And their stuff? And their association with each other? If you’re jealous? Get mad and make something awesome. It’s not easy, but it totally is that simple.

8 thoughts on “self-oppression and secret cabals”

  1. Don’t forget about the secret cabal of “SMOFs” who supposedly control the Hugos — a myth that reappears *every single year* during the nomination and awards announcement.

    That one seems be a variety of entitled lazy thinking — “Things didn’t turn out the way I personally wish they had, therefore there must be a shadowy conspiracy making it so…”

    I have heard this sort of silliness (secret cabals preventing publication) from struggling new writers of all genders, but I haven’t studied it enough to know if there is a trend in any way. You are probably better informed than I on the question of whether it is more prevalent involving women.

  2. I agree with some of the things you say in here, such as the dysfunctionality of complaining about exclusion anonymously… that way it only feeds into martyr complexes instead of getting anything productive accomplished.

    But I don’t think it’s possible to draw a firm line between secret cabals/entrenched power structures. I think most women grow up knowing on some level that they’re being excluded from the “old boy’s network” that runs the important things in life, so it’s natural that we hyperfocus on networks and exclusion, because we’re all excluded to some degree, even when the rules say we’re supposed to be included.

    Social networks on the internet don’t function by exclusion and persecution… it’s more like an attention-based economy with lots and lots of patron-client relationships. E.g. you give me some attention, I help you get some attention. But if someone doesn’t follow the often-unstated rules in some way — and this could be due to merit, or something about their identity — then they get locked out of the network because no one enters into attention-based relationships with them.

    I totally agree with the message of “if you don’t like it, don’t just complain, create a new network and do your own thing.” But complaining — in a focused, logical way — can often be the most productive way to get things started, to compare your experiences of exclusion with others, to find out of there really is some sort of redlining going on where the rules that say you’re welcome aren’t really being followed.

    1. I certainly don’t want people not to talk about stuff, I’m just frustrated with, and perhaps drawing a line badly (or, trying to draw a line where one can’t be drawn) between “these six people who write YA will never let my book be published because they don’t like me or I said something mean about one of their books” and the very problematic (and real and needing to be discussed) “People in positions of power with societal privilege are systematically, whether they know it or not, are preventing stories by/about women/people of color/LGBT people from getting published.”

      If it’s the first, I’m out of patience. If it’s the second, I hope we can not frame it as the first, as that’s a much bigger and critical political/social issue.

      What makes me nervous is this sense I have that infighting amongst ourselves (for various definitions of ourselves) about the first case (secret cabals, possibly of “mean girls”) about why we can’t get a leg up, serves that second, systematically silencing, case far too effectively.

      1. I think another way of looking at this is the classic crabs in the bucket analogy. If you’re in the in group you’ll always have people dragging you down. But sometimes you’re on the bottom trying to get up and instead of helping you out the people on top are kicking you down. It’s really a case by case thing and the only way anyone can tell the difference is by using critical thinking. I don’t think there’s any way to always draw a firm line based on environment because the dynamic affects the internet, affects porn, affects pretty much everything.

  3. It’s been discussed before, this quirk of woman-on-woman jealousy, where if we are jealous of another woman we search for some flaw, or simply assume there is one, and point to that to say that the woman in question is actually bad and undeserving of what she has. It’s the old: “She’s successful and talented and awesome….the bitch,” thing that we see thrown around as if it’s some sort of compliment to be the subject of that kind of jealousy. (The patriarchy doesn’t need to work to oppress, and police, and devalue women if we’re more than willing to do it for them.)

    “…everybody wants to have the righteousness of being excluded from some secret club.”

    Exactly! Because then they can form their own club of all the excluded people, and quote Groucho Marx.

    1. I have an ex who has an ex who went to an all-girls boarding school and he says she made it clear to him that faculty there actively relied on the socialization of girls to cut down other girls in this way to maintain order and control because it made life easier for the instructors.

      Sorry about the tortured sentence is tortured factor here.

      1. Man, my high school did the same thing. (Classes separated by gender, and you weren’t encouraged to talk to the other gender) And it was kind of obvious if you looked, because the guys classes ran on entirely different power structures.

  4. Love this “It’s that everybody wants to have the righteousness of being excluded from some secret club.”
    It’s so true.

    I’m more likely to listen to a complaint when the person complaining forms a logical argument with concrete proof/well thought out reasons and then suggests or offers a solution or alternative.

    I don’t see that with the whole “secret club” complaint.

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