15 August 2017

Thoughts on Cowardice

This is Robert Lopresti, butting in where I don't belong with some bad news that should not wait.  We just learned that our beloved fellow blogger B.K. Stevens has passed away.  Art Taylor will be writing at length about her in this space on Friday, but I wanted to let you know.  She will be missed more than I can say.  I apologize to Barb for stepping into her space.  - RL 

Barb here: Before we get to what I wrote earlier about cowardice, let me express my shock and sadness upon Bonnie's death. I've known her for more than a decade, and she was always such a warm and welcoming presence in the mystery short-story world. To Dennis and Bonnie's family: I'm so, so sorry. And now, I guess, onto my regularly scheduled post.

by Barb Goffman

Am I a coward?

I've been sitting this morning, thinking about it. Thinking about what happened this weekend in Charlottesville.

I'm a Jewish woman. I'm not religious, but I am Jewish. And when I read some of the signs of the neo-Nazi protestors in Charlottesville, especially those condemning Jews with vile, hateful words, I cringed. I was saddened. And I was angered. And I was scared.

It reminded me of one set of my maternal great-grandparents, who were killed by the Nazis in Poland. It reminded me of my paternal grandfather, who fled the Cossacks in Russia. He escaped to America but never truly became free--I understand they haunted him in his dreams all his life.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a boyfriend back in college, nearly thirty years ago. He asked me--if we were ever put in a position to have to hide or fight from the Nazis--would I deny who I am, pretend to be otherwise to survive? I said yes. I considered myself pragmatic. He thought it cowardly. He surely would have fought, and I expect wherever he is today, he's doing his part.

Am I cowardly?

I work as a crime-fiction editor. I often tell my clients to avoid hot-button issues. Unless your character is actively involved in politics for plot purposes, why give the character political views? You'll end up turning off some potential readers. There's no upside.

That's a phrase I use a lot. There's no upside. It's why I rarely post about politics on Facebook, my preferred social-media platform. The people who agree with me on political issues don't need me to weigh in. I'd be singing to the chorus. And the people who disagree with me--I'm not going to change their minds. And since I can't stand arguing with people, I refrain.

It's gone so far that I have a short story coming out soon with a character named Don. He was named after a friend's husband, but this weekend I worried about it and emailed the editor to see if there's time to change his name to Dan. I didn't want people distracted from the story by the other Don. I didn't want to invite any comments that tied me to him.

Perhaps I am cowardly.

Perhaps I've been wrong about there being no upside to addressing political issues in fiction and in real life. Bigotry grows in darkness. It festers in corners when no one is looking and tries to infect those around it. And then, when it feels it has some strength, some backing from those in power, like now, it slithers out, surprising the rest of us who thought that way of thinking was long gone except for a very few outlying people.

So maybe I've been wrong not to post about politics more often. Maybe shining light, even among those who agree with me, will push the evil that has taken root in our country to die off, bit by bit. Maybe it would be a good idea for authors to create plots or subplots involving hot-button issues such as racism, anti-Semitism, women's rights, and gay rights. It amazes me that these are even issues in the twenty-first century, but they are. So instead of backing away from these topics, perhaps crime fiction characters should tackle them head on. Will authors who take on these issues lose some readers? Maybe. But maybe they'll gain new ones. Maybe they'll make a difference in the thinking of some of the ones they already have.

Maybe that would be worth it.

Maybe the way to not be a coward is to take just one step that's scary or risky, or both, because it's the right thing to do.

This is what I'm thinking about today. Mystery readers and writers, I welcome your thoughts.


  1. A thoughtful and appropriate piece on a day with such sad news both political and personal.

  2. Living in Louisiana and working in law enforcement most of my life, I tell you racism thrives down here. So many confederate flags, it's sickening. It is a classic Orwellian nightmare. "Ignorance is strength." There are many exceptions of course but we are in the minority. Our new governor is a good man. And New Orleans took down their confederate monuments. It's just hard because you can't discuss issues with people who are proud of their ignorance. I do have one good thing to report. When one of my family members posted an anti LGBT slogan on Facebook, he got bombarded by the younger set (20s and 30s).

    I do it subtely in my writing but my loathing of racists is there.

  3. First, my condolences to B. K.'s family. This is a terrible shock.

    Barb, this really is a tough topic, and as time goes on I believe more strongly that we have a moral obligation to speak out against hatred and injustice. But exactly how, and exactly what to say are complicated.

    O'Neil hits it with the Orwell quote. You can't discuss issues with the willfully stupid.

    Thanks for holding the issue up for all to examine.

  4. So sorry to hear this news, about Bonnie's passing. Hard to believe.

    Barb, what a thoughtful and timely column. A great post about--as Steve said--a tough topic.

  5. It somehow seems appropriate that a serious post like this gets featured today, Barb. (Damn, we'll miss BK! I want to cry.)

    But your post: I've wondered myself about that very thing. I've wondered specifically, because I discovered a decade ago that I was part Jewish. But since WW1 at least, the family has been Church of England. When did that happen? Did my recent ancestor do this for survival?

    Survival vs Courage? What a poignant discussion this would be, if we were all around a table. Maybe Bouchercon?

  6. It makes me sad when people are afraid to speak out because they are afraid to lose readers, friends, family. We should be open to discussion, or even just allowed to give an opinion and say, this is my stand, deal with it. Some people make the decision to shy away from politics or other topics on FB, and that's their choice. I, personally, am outspoken politically and sometimes pay the consequences with lost friends, readers, clients, but I accept that.

    If you want to speak out, I hope you do. If you feel *obligated* to, well, I don't know. Silence means acceptance is a valid idea, but so it, it's a free country and I won't be shamed into doing what's not right for me. There are many ways to be politically active other than social media.

  7. Good piece, Barb. Thanks for thinking about this and having the courage (yes) to write about it.

    I work at a university. I have thought, more than once, about what would happen if we had an "active shooter" on campus. (The university police encourages us to think about it, and even shows us films on the subject.) I like to think that if put to the test I would be as brave as those professors a few years ago who put themselves in harm's way to protect their students. But until it happens (God forbid) we can only speculate as tohow we would react.

    After Sandy Hook there was a brilliant poem in the NY Times, of all places. I can't credit the author, but it explained that every September, all over the country, teachers sign long, carefully negotiated contracts. But they also sign an invisible, non-negotiable contract two words long: "My kids."

    Which is a long ramble from your topic. Seems to be hard to focus today, for some reason.

    Getting back to your piece, so much is about picking your battles. A phrase I have heard a lot in the last year is "Is this the hill you want to die on?" We all have to decide where we take our stand. The last three days have also made it clear that if you don't speak up at the right time it diminishes any attempt you make to fix it. But better late than never.

  8. Thinking about Bonnie today, of course. She will be deeply missed.

    As for the subject, I think about this a lot, where the line should be. Sometimes cowardice is exactly what you want from others--I saw someone refer to our president as a cowardly draft dodger the other day, and I thought, if only my brother had been one of those, he might have led a much more peaceful, happy life. But that's real life. In art, I feel braver, especially now. My 4th book is in the editing phase, and it takes place in January 2017. My MC is a gay ex-con, and I couldn't imagine her not having responses to the political climate. We'll see what the editor says about that.

  9. The last few days have been horrendous, and Bonnie's death is just... shocking. Tragic. Unbelievable.

    I do speak out, on social media, and other places, but then I grew up in California in the 60s, and I guess it was in the air, the water, and the general atmosphere. I try to pick my battles, but I have been active - perhaps too active - on FB and elsewhere this weekend. I just cannot wrap my mind around the fact that, in this day and age, I have to explain to people why Nazis are a BAD THING. And that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of freedom, but the battle-flag of rebels who were fighting to preserve slavery.

    Meanwhile... We carry on.

  10. Bonnie was a lovely person & a gifted writer. Didn't she live in Charlottesville? Actually my sister & her hubby moved from there to Northern Virginia only two days before the riots!

    My late father-in-law was born in Poland in 1930 & was locked up in Auschwitz for about a month when he was 15. One of the guards there hated him & shattered his kneecap with a rifle butt. He didn't get timely medical attention & walked with one straight leg the rest of his life.

    I'm not on Facebook because my ex is quite active on there, which I know because I googled his name, because I have a restraining order against him. One reason he & I broke up was because of his racist ideas ... I've possibly saved a lot of time by not being on Facebook to argue with him & others.

  11. Barb, a great article! Like Eve, I spend far too much time on FB, responding to bigots and robots who have bought into the garbage which passes as political philosophy and has given rise to Charlottesville. Unfortunately there will be more. My take on it is this: The Nazi party was tried and convicted of crimes against humanity and has been banned from Germany. Why are they allowed to exist in this country? They flaunt their repugnant philosophy under the protection of the first amendment. (The same amendment, incidentally, that Trump wants to deny to the press). Why should a convicted felon be allowed this protection? Color me ignorant, but I would dearly like someone to explain it to me.

  12. I only recently met Bonnie for the first time in person -- in Charlottesville, no less. We only had a few minutes here and there to talk, and she mentioned hoping that we would have time for a real talk during Bouchercon. My first impression was, "She's such a sweetheart. Nobody would guess she writes mysteries."

    As for politics, I keep them out of my inspirational romances. They're fair game in the cozy mysteries but on a smaller scale. Topical social issues arise in upcoming titles--racism, bigotry, even dog fighting--and the main character puts her life on the line to defend victims.

    But would I put my life on the line? I'm certainly willing to put Facebook friendships on the line. One look at my feed confirms it. I've cut ties with people I've known for decades because they chose to attack my non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual friends via the comments on things I post to social media. I've blocked immediate family members for similar reasons.

    My personal guilt comes with the fact that I don't attend public events. The biggest reason is social anxiety--which is odd because it's exactly the opposite of how I was years ago. Just looking at photos from friends who attended the Women's March had me breaking out in a cold sweat. They assured me my presence was felt, but I'm sure it wasn't the same as if I'd been there.

    So I continue using social media (and, to an extent, my books and stories) as a platform to share and educate. Hopefully, it helps and if someone doesn't like it, then they probably won't enjoy following me or reading the things I write.

  13. In Life

    I'm an outspoken fighter, but I'm not a judger of those who choose a different path to survive. I've taken a long time to learn communication skills. Telling someone their stupid beliefs suck often serves to make them more entrenched. But hearing them out and then suggesting how you feel tends to open people's minds rather than close them. Thus a fight might not become a fight, a confrontation might not turn out a confrontation. I think of it as verbal ju-jitsu.

    In Fiction

    Although I've violated my own rule in at least one story, it's wise for characters and fiction authors to avoid deep political opinions. I'm reminded of a Washington thriller that had President Jimmy Carter deriding and abusing White House staff. The author's obvious distaste for Carter got the better of his tongue and the fictional Carter seemed so far off that it jerked me out of the story. I've long forgotten the title, the author, and even the plot, but I've not forgotten that nasty political treatment, probably the opposite of what the author wished.

    Bonnie… I'm still processing that. What a lovely lady.

  14. I commend you Barb, for speaking out.

  15. Bonnie's death is such a loss to so many!

    What a thoughtful and thought provoking blog. Thanks!

  16. So much to think about Barb. I'm sure Bonnie would have added significantly and thoughtfully to the discussion. I admired her so much and was so happy that I had a chance to talk with her a Malice.
    I don't think you're cowardly at all. Social media is rarely the place for a thoughtful and reasonable exchange of views. It think it's simply the medium. I know people who are very "political" online but then ignore the issues in their own communities and don't even bother to vote.

  17. First, my serious condolences to B.K.'s friends and family. And, Barb, as a serious political junkie I have noticed that with the publication lag time regarding the publication of stories, it may not be practical to do a story on an issue which may not be topical when the story is published.

  18. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by.

    Janice, thanks for commenting. It is a sad day and time.

    O'Neil, Steve, and John, I wish I knew a solution, something that would get people to stop embracing ignorance and division. It feels like the problem is getting worse, not better. Perhaps that's simply an appearance because social media makes it easier for segments that used to be farther removed from large swaths of people to more easily be found and to more easily promote themselves. But the problem does seem to be worsening.

    Mel, survival or courage. Society probably needs a little of both. Sometimes all you can do is survive. I'm reminded of a great song by Mike + the Mechanics from the eighties, I think, called "Silent Running." The lyrics say in part:
    Swear allegiance to the flag
    Whatever flag they offer
    Never hint at what you really feel
    Teach the children quietly
    For some day sons and daughters
    Will rise up and fight while we stand still

    That's basically survival for now, courage later. It's poignant when you think of yourself as oppressed. Not so much when you realize that people with repugnant thoughts think of themselves the same way, and which could be why thoughts and groups we think should be long gone suddenly appear so widespread.

    Ramona, you are fearless! I so admire you for that. You respond to people and situations so perfectly with just the right zing. Sometimes I feel comfortable not commenting because I know people who are better at such responses than I am, people like you, will step up. So thank you.

    Rob and Eve, we do need to pick our battles. We can't fight every battle. That just burns you out.

    Laura, I'll be interested in the reaction you get from your editor. And when you started talking about Vietnam, I thought, imagine if He *had* gone there. He'd have been no good in battle. He'd have hidden behind other people. Wouldn't have had anyone's back.

    Elizabeth, your father in law's story is tragic. Wow. As to Bonnie, no she didn't live in Charlottesville. She lived an hour or two south of there, I think.

    Herschel, thanks for the comments. Have you read anything by Nat Hentoff? You might find it instructive. For instance, this book: https://www.amazon.com/Free-Speech-Me-But-Not-Thee/dp/006019006X

    Becky, if you can't do certain things, in-person protests for instance, then you can't. Everyone has their limits, and that's okay.

    Becky and Leigh, as to politics and social issues in books, some things are easier to address than others. You don't run much of a risk of alienating cozy mystery readers by having the main character try to shut down a dog-fighting ring. You might have a bigger risk by having a subplot with your main character fighting for adoption rights for gay couples, for instance. Those are the types of risks I've suggested previously aren't worth taking. Perhaps I've been wrong.

    Grace and Sherry, thank you for stopping by and commenting.

  19. Shari, yes, when I wrote the blog post yesterday morning, I thought Bonnie would have interesting things to say. She will be missed. (And people who don't vote? Baffling! I once met a woman who looked down her nose at voting, saying, "Oh we don't do that in our family," as if I had suggested she go pick up litter off the highway.)

    Jeff, unfortunately, so many issues remain topical for so long. Who would have thought that in 2017 we still have a problem with neo-Nazis, but we do. Sigh.

  20. I think the decision is yours to make, but I also think your beliefs come out even when you don't obviously display them. Caring for others, standing up for justice, wanting what's right, all show through.
    I once said, when my sophomores were reading NIGHT, that I would hope I would be brave enough to hide those in danger, but that no one could be sure until faced with the decision and the dangers. A student studied me for a minute, then declared, "Oh, yes . . . YOU would." I thanked her for having faith in me . . . and hoped never to have to find out.
    I had consciously not talked politics or activism, but my students knew, and would come to me with questions. May we each make the difference we can to make the world better. Hugs <3

  21. I'm late to this wonderful discussion. But feel I must comment.
    I didn't know Bonnie personally but thought highly of her stories. Plus always enjoyed her post here. She was always kind to me in her remarks. My heart to her family. This sudden blow can really throw you.

    I don't necessarily tackle political views in writing. However, my PI characters Jenny and CJ are best pal partners. Jenny is white and C J is black. I did consciously plan for them to show a black woman and a white woman could be best friends. And work together and never feel like there could be a problem. They fight bad guys...not each other. I worked with and had a best pal who happened to be black. C J is based on Choicie and she even named CJ Cinnamon Jemima Gunn.
    On FB I am very outspoken. Have lost some longtime friends. Don't talk politics with some family. Main reason I speakout on FB is I learn much from others. An idea presented in a new way is always a thrill. I know I'm mostly preaching to the choir but I've also come to admire many people I never would have known their beliefs if I didn't read their posts.

  22. Thanks for commenting. Mary and Jan. Jan, I like your subtle approach to promoting equality in your books.


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