Identity politics bullies versus SFF Con management 2018

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At the end of July, WorldCon became another in the list of SFF conventions that experienced partisan conflict this year about programming, guests or treatment of guests. Special interest groups have apparently moved on from insisting on strict Codes of Conduct for the conventions to insisting on excluding certain guests and demanding particular programming as part of the same agenda. The complaints flying around are the same ones honed for use in the Code of Conduct campaign, words like “unsafe,” “disrespected” and “harassment.” These loaded words are apparently based on such ordinary things as fiction releases and errors in biographies. It seems mostly a problem on the progressive left, but after conservative author Jon Del Arroz didn’t get what he wanted from a kerfluffle at BayCon, he filed suit for defamation—an indication of how far people will go to get their way.

Most of this problem is just victim/identity politics, where people maneuver for advantage through bullying tactics. If you’re a minority and want recognition, then the best way to do it these days is to make noise about being victimized and disrespected and otherwise causing a stink. Progressives are trained to respond with abject apologies and to jump to make adjustments that give you what you want. Because the cons have limited resources and can’t afford massive disturbances and bad press, most have folded to demands. This has led to complaints from other groups harmed by the changes, such as conservatives or older writers. This must have been a particularly aggressive group of activist bullies at WorldCon. See Mary Robinette Kowal comments on trying to work with them. The only failure of this strategy so far seems to have been DragonCon, which ignored guest withdrawals and fired agitators from their positions on staff.

Whatever, WorldCon management busily tried to accommodate the complaints and save their reputation as progressive. There was quite a scramble going on in the last weeks before the con, where the staff completely tore apart the programming and started over. Sensitive guests withdrew to make room for minorities. Teams were called in to help. But, the truth is, they can’t satisfy the demands because it’s not just about appearing on a panel. The progressive ground has moved out from WorldCon members’ feet. An article in the Daily Dot actually classifies their standard demographic as “overlapping” with the Sad Puppies. Who would have thought?

Next, interesting questions about the Hugo voting that emerged in the crisis.

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Virtue Signaling: Weaponizing the System

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Recently I’ve been blogging about virtue signaling, which is publicly stating your opinions on moral issues in order to show your support. Social pressure to conform leads to “MeToo” reactions, and something worse called “groupthink.” In groupthink, no one really thinks critically about issues, but instead responds to the social pressures with knee-jerk, mindless reactions.

This makes virtue signaling a powerful tool in the political arena. In fact, the dependability of the reaction it provokes makes it easily weaponized. All you have to do right now to take someone down is to call them a racist or a sexual harasser. This trend has gotten so obvious in broader US politics that I can almost see powerful and manipulative Puppetmasters pulling the strings—a war back and forth—with attacks taking down Hollywood political donors, artists, senators, members of the press, anybody who influential and on the wrong side of issues. I’m sure these Puppetmasters are laughing all the while, as mindless groupthink lemmings attack one another, doing their work for them. Anybody who questions the process gets a dose of the same.

Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were early casualties, and conspiracy theorists immediately speculated that Weinstein was payback. It’s pretty easy to dig up questionable actions over a man’s lifetime, but women are harder. Taylor Swift was attacked as a racist by someone claiming her songs contain white supremacist lyrics. Meryl Streep is currently under attack by anonymous posters that have appeared in Los Angeles, accusing her of knowing and keeping quiet about Weinstein—complicity, in other words. Morning-after remorse has produced calls for Al Franken to unresign, and led Tavis Smiley and Joe Scarborough to wonder publicly what’s behind the attacks. Meanwhile, the Trump administration deftly avoided accusations by taking down attorney Lisa Bloom.

Bringing the focus back to the SFF community, I think these same hazards have been working in the heavy polarization of relations. Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely important to call out people who are actually sexually abusive and racist, but because of the weaponizing, it’s gotten to be important to look critically at the accuracy of the claims and question what might be behind them.

The most obvious example is Vox Day, of course. Articles and comments consistently claim he’s anti-diversity, while a look at his publications and award nominations show clearly that he likes Chinese SF and promotes minorities. Another recent attack, of course, has been on Rocket Stack Rank as racist and sexist because of their dislike of non-standard pronouns. Wasn’t it at one time questionable to attack reviewers? Another example is last year’s attack on horror writer David Riley for holding conservative political views. Still another is the attack on editor Sunil Patel (see also here) for apparently being a jerk, while accusers couldn’t come up with anything more than vague claims about sexual harassment.

There may be questionable issues at work in all these cases, of course. Anyone has the right to feel affronted and to complain, but shouldn’t we be looking at things a little more rationally?

More on Fascism and Freedom of Speech

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I notice in the website’s analytics that this is a popular topic this month, so maybe I should add a few more blogs on the subject.

I’ve had something brewing since back in September, when you may remember that President Trump posted a gif of himself hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball. I was pretty busy that week, so didn’t sit down and listen to the usual hue and cry in the media. My impression was that the gif was sort of juvenile and a bit humorous. There’s a clear symbolism there, too, about Trump defeating the forces of liberalism in the recent election. It might not be very presidential to needle people like that, but all in all, I thought it was a pretty well done statement. Then on Sunday I had the TV playing and caught some of State of the Union, a show on CNN hosted that day by Dana Bash, where guest Ana Navarro made the comment that a six-year-old would be punished for this, so it shouldn’t be acceptable from Trump. The impression I got was that she thought Trump needed to be punished for it.

So, here we are back at the question of freedom of speech, and whether statements people don’t like should to be punished through the popular method of ganging up on the speaker or writer and shouting slurs. More recently, there’s been a move to punish unpopular speech with actual physical violence.

Reviewing what I’ve already said about the First Amendment, it only protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press (including symbolic statements and hate speech but not inciting to violence) from government censorship. It doesn’t provide any protection against consequences of speech in public forums or guarantee that statements will be accepted at all. Regardless, there is a popular expectation that everyone has a right to be heard. Some of this is supported by other legislation, such as whistle blower laws that protect people who alert the public to questions of safety, corruption, etc.

So why do people feel they need to punish some statements? When you look at the definitions of censorship, you’ll see that it’s often connected with moral judgments. In other words, people who are out there shouting slurs have made a decision that some ideas are dangerous to the moral fabric of our culture and need to be suppressed. Censorship is also used to protect a position of power, such as when a political interest group tries to suppress the opposition.

This kind of censorship is fascism. It used to be a popular technique of the politically far right, who were trying to protect the US from dangerous communist ideas. However, the pendulum has swung so it’s now often a tool of the left, which tries to frame unpopular ideas as sexist or racist in order to incite public opinion against the speaker or writer. Over the course of history, fascism has not shown up in a good light. Classic fails include Puritanism and the Nazi Party.

Besides that, I’m worrying about Ana Navarro’s child-rearing ideas. Who would punish a six-year-old for drawing silly cartoons?

Intimidating people into silence

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In the last blog, I reported on a group (wisely anonymous) who advanced an article challenging Cecily Kane’s 2016 Fireside article that used a statistical analysis to show anti-black bias among SFF editors. Although the anonymous authors agreed there was a bias against black authors, they disagreed on the cause. After threats, they withdrew the article. Fireside then posted the article on their site.

So, what was the problem here? Why were these authors threatened? Was it because they challenged Kane’s specific conclusions about editorial bias? Or was it because they challenged possible gains that might have been made because of Kane’s article? Is this a political issue? Are the anonymous authors misguided statisticians? Or are they really racists trying to undermine black progress?

The interesting thing is that this isn’t an isolated case of attacking and bullying people, not just for their social/political views, but also for research that might contradict the opposition’s conclusions. It’s actually a fairly common theme in US society right now. While Charlie Rose was on medical leave recently, stand-in Dan Senor hosted social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. (See brief article and video of the show  here.) They had an extended discussion about Charles Murray’s experience during a speaking engagement the first week of March at Middlebury College. Protests led college officials to change the engagement to a broadcast, but as Murray was leaving, he was physically attacked in a brawl that injured a professor. The panelists observed that we’re used to hearing about this kind of thing in the case of provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, but Murray is just an elderly academic doing research that some people don’t like–and is vilified for it. According to Haidt and Bruni, the individuals who threaten and attack like this are actually a small group who plan to gain advantage by making slurs instead of arguments (i.e. labeling and inciting against people as racists, sexists, homophobes, etc.). This makes the group a socially powerful force within a community, mainly because people are afraid of them. Think trolls.

But what happened to the research here? Can we really ignore scientific research if we don’t like the results? The anonymous authors and Kane both agreed there was an anti-black bias at work in SFF story publication, but how can we work to remedy that situation unless we have a clear understanding of the cause? Kudos to Fireside for putting up the opposing article. It makes them look gracious, for one thing, and also interested in a real discussion about the issue.

Rebuttal of the 2016 Cecily Kane Fireside Article

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That finishes up reviews of all the short works from the Nebula Finalists. The novels will take me a little while longer to go through, but in the meantime, I’ll try to review some of the Rabid Puppies recommendations for the Hugo nominations. Next up will be John C. Wright’s short story “An Unimaginable Light.”

Meanwhile, I want to mention something that went by too fast for most people to catch—a rebuttal to last year’s analysis by Cecily Kane in Fireside Magazine that suggested anti-black racism was to blame for lower publication rates of black authors in SFF publications. The rebuttal, titled “Bias in Speculative Fiction,” was published at Medium. It criticized Kane’s statistical methodology and recommended a deeper study of structural bias against African American authors—but it was only online for a matter of hours. The authors (who prudently remained anonymous) were quickly labeled racists and withdrew the article after receiving threats. Luckily File 770 published a link to the Google cache file. Fireside also republished the article here.

A couple of main concerns of the authors were the use of the binomial distribution and US population figures in the Fireside statistical analysis. The binomial distribution predicts random events and the percent of African Americans in the US population says nothing about how many are writers. These issues should have stuck out to any critical readers, and I commented on them here at the time. Beyond what the rebuttal says about the statistical methods, submittal and publication are never random. That’s why magazine editors ask you to read the magazine before submitting. That way you don’t submit something that’s totally misaimed and waste everyone’s time (including your own).

Besides the methodology problems in Kane’s article, I have another concern now, which is that the review and rebuttal of Kane’s methodology was met with threats and bullying. There is a long tradition of rebuttal in the scientific community. It goes like this: Published scientific articles (such as those using statistics to suggest editing bias) are reviewed by readers, who are then encouraged to support progress by pointing out flaws in the science. This makes sure the community self-corrects. If rebuttals are shut down by threats and bullying, then how do we keep track of the true scientific facts? What if calling SFF editors racist is just pseudo-science?

Transgressive writing as a minority pursuit

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I’ve been poking around again, this time wondering a little about the history of transgressive fiction. As it turns out, transgressive is considered a genre, and many writers of what we think of as classics today were actually considered transgressive in their day. This includes writers like the Marquis de Sade (which you would expect), Émile Zola and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. James Joyce’s Ulysses was actually banned in the US until 1933, and William S. Burroughs was the subject of an obscenity trial.

People are still writing transgressive fiction today, of course. It’s normally considered to be cutting edge works about sex, drugs, incest, pedophilia, etc., but as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, people who think they’re just writing something creative can suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of correctness.

Here’s an interesting article by Polari prize-winning writer Diriye Osman who found he had written a transgressive book called Fairytales for Lost Children about the African gay experience. The first indication of this, of course, was difficulty in finding a publisher. Osman suggests that writing programs normally promote a type of writing that appeals to the mainstream, while avante-garde and transgressive works always come from outsiders and minority writers. Osman also notes that most editors are very risk-averse, which means they don’t much want to deal with avante-garde and transgressive writers–they want more of what’s on the best-seller list. After numerous rejections, Osman finally found a tiny publisher for his collection of stories, which (surprise!) then went on to win an award.

A little background on gatekeepers

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I went in search of background on editors as gatekeepers in the science fiction and fantasy field and came up with an interesting text. This is Inside Science Fiction (2006) by SF writer, editor and SFWA Grand Master James E. Gunn. Gunn started writing science fiction in 1949, so he’s seen quite a bit of water flow under the bridge.

Anyhow, Gunn has a chapter in his book titled “Gatekeepers.” He reviews the history of pulp SF magazines, mentioning Hugo Gernsback, Anthony Boucher, H.L. Gold and John W. Campbell as early gatekeeping editors who shaped the definition and direction of science fiction by what they accepted. According to Gunn, SF magazines flowered until about the mid-1950s when they started to die back a bit, impacted by the pressure of novels. This declining trajectory was jolted in 1964 when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds magazine. Moorcock, Gunn thinks, was the “last gatekeeper” for SFF magazines because he threw the doors open wide. This let in a lot of what would have been unacceptable just a few years before, such as anti-heroes, and eventually, New Wave science fiction.

So who are the gatekeepers now? Gunn thinks competition in the marketplace means that individual magazine editors have very little influence on the overall direction of SFF. One reason for this is the sheer volume of material that’s being published, and another is the huge popularity of novels. In the mid-1950s, the advent of the science fiction novel meant that book publishers took over the major role of shaping SFF. However, Jeff Bezos came along in 2009 and shattered that structure with the launch of Amazon’s publishing business.

The huge impact of free and easy self-publishing on the marketplace means there’s a certain amount of chaos out there. You can see from the published figures that submissions for some magazines run into the thousands every month. This means that slush-pile readers are the main gatekeepers for the major publications. Anything they think is interesting gets passed along to the next level, until it’s ultimately added to the body of published work—or not. Noted writers might circumvent this stumbling block by going direct to the top level, but most writers can’t do that.

Nick Cole’s story shows that novel editors still feel very secure in their long-running role as gatekeepers for what’s acceptable and what’s transgressive in the genre. To the list of current gatekeepers, I think you also have to add the nebulous groups the Puppies are accusing of influence on the major awards. Otherwise, why is there such a huge contrast between the Nebula and Dragon Award finalists?

Hm.

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