Recently I entered a writing contest where it seems judges' ableist attitudes prevented me from progressing to the finals. I have a strong feeling that is the case because I entered my book A Thing Called Compassion, which covers disability rights and abuse against disabled people. Those judges claimed they didn't like my book, without giving any explanation as to why they didn't like it. This makes me think the judges were covering up ableist attitudes, and when I tried to bring this up with the contest co-ordinator, she claimed other people received negative feedback without explanation too. This is strange, as I have a friend who judged these contests in the past and she was told that if she had any negative feedback, she had to provide an explanation behind that feedback. So, it seems the people running the contests have changed the rules suddenly.
OK, so, here are rules I think I should apply to judging writing contests:
1. If you think a certain event in a book wouldn't happen in real life, or you can't understand why a character would make a certain decision, think again. The author might be writing about their own personal experiences, or know someone who has been through them. If you claim they wouldn't happen in real life, that's invalidating these people's experiences, which could have been traumatic or causing negative flashbacks for all you know.
2. Don't give a story low marks just because a certain character reminds you of someone you know and are not fond of, like an ex-spouse or colleague you don't get on well with. Sure, it can be a bit off-putting when a character reminds you of someone you wish you hadn't met, but marking a story down for that isn't fair on the author. After all, the author doesn't know about the people you've been unlucky enough to meet in the past.
3. Don't let little things like the occasional grammatical error or words you feel have been used incorrectly ruin the whole story for you. I know it can be irritating, but the point is to enjoy the storyline, not nit-pick every little fault. Only mark it down in a big way if errors are persistent.
4. If you are bigoted or prejudiced against people because of race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, disability, etc, don't even bother judging. Many authors write to have their voices heard, especially when it comes to human rights issues. If you're going to hate a book because of that, contest judging isn't for you. Full stop.
5. Know the difference between constructive criticism and putting down. It is never OK to say an author doesn't know how to write. It is OK, however, to point out little bits here and there that might need improving if the book isn't already published (without nit-picking, of course) or say that you don't agree with some things in the book (without outright putting the whole story down). Like I've mentioned in Rule 3, nit-picking is a bad thing to do - never rip into an author over one tiny part of their book you don't like. If it becomes a bestseller, you'll end up choking on your words.
So, there we have it. These rules should be easy for anyone to follow. If you can't follow them, don't judge writing contests.
Over the years, I've had to put up with writing contest judges using put-downs to describe my work instead of constructive criticism, often without explanations behind their words. They often made incorrect assumptions about my books too, like thinking one of my books was about a teacher having a relationship with a school student (the hero in the book was a teacher, but the heroine was not a student; she was an adult). Sometimes they'd nit-pick tiny details about my books and majorly mark me down for them. I've had to put up with people praising and congratulating authors for doing the things I've been ripped apart for. Worst of all, this year, I entered my third book, A Thing Called Compassion, in a contest with the thought that anyone who hated a book that spoke out strongly about bullying and disability discrimination would be cold-hearted. Well, some judges did hate it, or so they said, along with their terrible marks, but they didn't give any explanation as to why they hated it. This is a red flag that they could possibly be real-life ableist bullies. And guess what? I've had to PAY for people to tear me down, as entering contests has a fee.
This has really fuelled the debilitating Imposter Syndrome that has affected me since childhood. This syndrome is largely caused by the discouragement, nit-picking and discrimination I've faced nearly my entire life because of a neurological condition I was born with. Imposter Syndrome is not an "all in your head" thing. It's a very real and serious issue that often can't be deterred by simply "thinking more positively". It creates a nasty internal voice that acts with a will of its own.
When I tried talking to the writing organisation that ran the contests, I was accused of being "rude and immature" and even unfairly suspended from their Facebook group. Needless to say, I have now left that group and organisation, but when I continued to stand up for myself and explain my past experiences, the president of that organisation apologised for the way I felt, not for what had happened. When I let her know that wasn't an acceptable way to apologise, what kind of response did I get? Crickets.
Which brings me to my main topic here - when you apologise to someone, you say sorry for what you did. If the situation doesn't involve something you did, it's OK to say, "I'm sorry about what's happened" or "I'm sorry you went through this." However, it's never OK to say, "I'm sorry you feel this way." You may think you're acknowledging their feelings, or trying to convince the other person you're acknowledging their feelings, but the reality is, you're implying that their emotions are childish. Also, you are trying to avoid accountability if it's something you've done.
What's more, it's not OK to say, "I'm sorry for what I did, but if you hadn't done X, I wouldn't have done Y," or "I'm sorry, but I wasn't expecting you to take any offence." The former shifts the blame completely on to the victim and the latter is similar to apologising for the way the victim reacted - implying they're childish for having feelings.
Mind your tone, too. Shouting "Sorry!", saying it in a sarcastic manner ("Sorry!") or using a singsong voice to say it, doesn't count as a real apology. In the case of sarcasm, I have the hero and heroine in my book Conducting Love call out this behaviour from a youth band musician towards a fellow musician. Another thing - when a victim, especially one from a marginalised or oppressed group of people, stands up for themselves or opens up about how they're feeling, they are not being rude or immature. They want to be heard, and have a right to be heard. I have covered this in my next book, A Passionate Voice (not yet published at the time of writing this).
Apologising sincerely shouldn't be an art, but considering the shocking number of people who find it unusually hard, it seems to have become an art. Joe Cocker and Elton John are right when they sing about sorry being the hardest word. Being angry and hurt at a certain situation is a very human reaction, so we need to stop judging, blaming or punishing people for being sensitive and try to be more understanding.
As an activist for autism rights, I’ve received lots of support for what I believe in – that autistic people have the right to have their voices heard and to make their own choices if they are capable of doing so. These autism rights allies have cheered me on, told me not to give up fighting and acknowledged the bad experiences they’ve heard about autistic people going through with abuse, discrimination, etc. However, I’ve also had people accuse me of being “anti-parent”, “bitter” or “negative”, claim surveys of autistic people’s experiences of abuse are “flawed” and demand proof that abuse is happening. This is a cruel, insensitive way to dismiss the suffering of a group of people who are already marginalised and largely invisible in mainstream society, and denies their rights as human beings.
Sure, we’ve all heard the protests every time marginalised and oppressed people fight to have their voices heard – “Not all men”, “Not all white people”, “Not all non-LGBTQ+”, etc. Not to mention the howls of “That’s so hateful against white people,” “Feminists want to destroy men,” “LGBTQ+ people are anti-Christian” and “Disability rights are anti-parent and caregiver.” Then there are the constant protests of “rights to free speech” whenever vulnerable people speak about being threatened or called offensive names.
These are classic examples of privileged fragility – white fragility, male fragility, neurotypical fragility, etc. People who show these kinds of behaviours either feel threatened by the voices of minority and marginalised groups or they want to make human rights issues all about themselves. They often can’t handle having their privilege taken away from them, and will do anything in their power to silence vulnerable people, often being careful about the words they use when they do it. That is how they often manage to fly under the radar without facing any consequences for their actions, especially online, where they’re careful not to violate hateful conduct policies. Also, when a victim-blaming culture exists so strongly in our society, everyone always sympathises with perpetrators. For heaven’s sake, it shouldn’t be that hard to respect people who are different to you.
Still don’t understand what I’m on about? Let me make this straight – white people don’t get hounded with offensive questions about their race or culture, for example, “Are you from China?”, “Where are you really from?” or “Surely you’ve been to wherever your ancestors came from?”, and can easily walk into shops without staff suspecting them of being potential shoplifters. Men don’t get lectured about keeping safe from sexual predators and can express anger without people calling them “bitches” or assuming it’s “that time of the month”. Non-disabled people don’t have to put up with being infantilised, patronised or people taking away their freedom of choice under the guise of “helping” them. Heterosexual people don’t get subjected to invasive questions about how they’ll have children, or preached at for being “wrong” or “possessed by the devil”. Cisgender people never get asked what their private parts look like or have online or public hate campaigns carried out against them. If none of these things have happened to you, you have no right to invalidate or deny others’ experiences, demand these people show “proof” of their experiences or make their issues all about you.
A strong example of privileged fragility I have come across recently is a letter to our local newspaper about how the protesters against Posy Parker were being “hateful”. This is blatant cisgender fragility. The person who wrote the letter should take a look in the mirror – who is really being “hateful” here? It is extremely cold-hearted to accuse discrimination and hate crime victims of being the “real” perpetrators. This only crushes their self-worth, destroys their trust in others and can make them hate privileged people in return. Hate is an ugly cycle that manifests like a hideous dark cloud in society and can only be defeated when privileged people actually face consequences for their attitudes.
But it is possible to let go of unearned privileges and get over this kind of attitude. Take a look at Vic Tamati, founder of SafeMan SafeFamily. His male privilege often got the better of him in the past due to his upbringing and he hurt female members of his family, but he learned violence against women is not OK and is now using his story to help others in similar situations. Another example is Thomas DeWolf, co-author of the book Gather at the Table and a white US man descended directly from slave owners. As a boy, he grew up unaware of his privileges and only learned of his family history in his teenage years at a major family gathering. His co-author, Sharon Morgan, is a black woman descended directly from slaves and at one point she claimed his face morphed into every white person who’d oppressed and discriminated against her. Of course, he initially found that comment “offensive” and “unfair”, but later accepted the truth – his face, being white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, non-disabled, Christian and middle-class, does represent the wider face of oppression. He and his co-author are still strong friends to this day.
It’s pretty clear many people who are privileged because of their race, gender, etc can’t handle people they see as lower-class in society having equal rights to them, or having any power. They are clearly unable to put themselves in marginalised people’s shoes and understand how it feels to be constantly mistreated and discriminated against because of something they can’t change, or be accused of being a “burden of society”. It is time to listen to voices that keep being silenced and learn to let go of privileges you haven’t earned. If you wouldn’t like others trying to silence you and making your issues all about themselves, don’t do it to them. It’s as simple as that.
Hey, everyone! What does International Women's Day mean to you? Does it remind you of the struggles women have been through, and still go through to gain fair treatment, equal rights and be safe in their communities? Does is encourage you to honour and respect the females in your life? Does it make you cheer them on when they aspire to achieve great goals?
I've been fortunate enough to have many people root for me when I've told them my goals and dreams. But I've also had many people actively discourage me, and most of those people were women. Many of them had excuses for their attitudes like, "You'll never succeed in that industry, it's too competitive", "You shouldn't go for that job when you're so pretty", etc, but the worst one was, "You should be thinking about having children." Then when I told the woman who said that last one that I didn't want children, she responded with with, "Don't you?!" Her horrified reaction said it all - she seriously couldn't believe I refused to do what society still expects of all women. When I called her out on her sexist attitude, she claimed she "couldn't" be sexist because she was a woman.
This is exactly what I'm talking about - too many people think only men can be sexist, when they make grab or make inappropriate comments about our boobs, control our bodies through abortion legislations, force us to get certain beauty treatments to fit their own selfish ideas about what women's bodies should look like, pay us less than our male counterparts doing the same work for the same hours or commit gender-based violence. However, I have seen many women reinforce these harmful ideas by telling each other how to dress, not to flirt openly with men or go out at night, that they need to look more feminine or tone down their intelligence otherwise "no man will want you". When I told a woman who worked for a feminist organisation about being judged for not wanting children, she told me to take it as a compliment because "I'd be a great mother". You know, no man would ever be told he should have children because he'd be a "great father". And this, coming from someone in a feminist group!
I have also noticed a trend among women who've judged me as such - either they had unplanned children or they gave up their lives to look after sick or disabled children. Let me make this clear - just because children have interfered with your lives doesn't mean they should interfere with mine. And to the women who've criticised me for wearing my hair short because you think I'd "look better with long hair" - you are entitled to wear your hair long, but again, don't force it on me. It's my hair and I'm not growing it out just to make YOU happy. Men don't usually say anything about it, but when they do, they say they like it or that it suits me.
And don't get me started on women's magazines that fat-shame or skinny-shame female celebrities, even when they're naturally overweight or underweight. How are women supposed to be empowered by that? Not to mention the women who've accused me of not being a "real" feminist because I like wearing skirts and high-heels, shave my legs and armpits and sometimes wear make-up. For heaven's sake, feminism is not about women trying to be men, it's about men and women being EQUAL and giving women freedom of choice without judgement. Then there's the magazine "agony aunt" who responded to a woman whose husband was forcing her to get a Brazilian wax against her will with "Do as your husband says". Do I need to remind you that women have the right to ownership of their own bodies, regardless of whether they have husbands or partners?
When women tear each other down instead of supporting each other, we are allowing male chauvinists and toxic patriarchy to win. We will never get anywhere be competing with each other and ripping into each other. To quote an article on internalised misogyny I read in a magazine, we are just as guilty of sexism as men, and have as much responsibility to respect one another.