Why do we need all that baggage?

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I’m feeling the need to say more about the messages embedded in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I expect I know where they come from. After the Force Awakens, there was controversy about new directions in the series. Presumably the producers were a little annoyed by this, and the result is all these messages about letting go of history. The loss of the old Star Wars is inevitable, actually, as the original characters are now too old to be dashing action figures, and the Princess is dead. As a traditional fan, I understand these messages, but how is a younger audience to take them?

The old Star Wars was about the resourcefulness, courage and discipline that it took to be a Jedi. It was about attaining wisdom and skill in the arts and sciences, and about how easy it is to slip off the narrow path and fall to the dark side. The reward for all the time and effort Luke put into his study was self-esteem, ability, adventure and success in the new world he helped to create.

To review: Most of the troubling messages in the film come from the conversations between Luke and Rey, where we see Luke has rejected his accomplishments and claims the Jedi “religion” is outdated and empty. He advises Rey to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey is ambitious. She makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while Luke still refuses to help her. We’re left in a universe of kids with no guidance, and the result is wild magic to get what they want, to defend themselves, and maybe to rescue their friends. There’s no emphasis on study, planning or organization. The message is that individual grandstanding, insubordination and mutiny against your leaders is both forgivable and all good in the end.

So, are these really good messages to send to children? I’m sure a lot of kids will love hearing they don’t need the older generation. But, should elders make a decision that the old order is dead and refuse to teach kids the skills and wisdom they’ll need to run the world by themselves? Do we really need to remember all that baggage about codes of honor, the Holocaust and the US Civil War?

I agree that there’s a certain weight to baggage like that. Minorities that see themselves only as victims of discrimination will have a hard time rising above it. If you spend all your time mired in events that ended over a hundred years ago, for example, then you won’t accomplish much that’s new. But civilization grows because we know about the past and pass on knowledge and wisdom to others. It grows because we, as a society, organize, study the mistakes of previous generations and come up with a common plan that most people support to deal with problems in our world.

Don’t grandstanding and individual self-serving only undermine this effort? Why do we, as a society, want to glorify that above study and hard work?

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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 Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking

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In the last blog about social issues, I commented on David Gerrold’s essay ”Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” where he discusses the requirement to virtue signal in order to preserve your reputation in the SFF community. My response was that this prevents independent thinking, or even any kind of reasonable discussion about the current direction of the publishing community. I also mentioned that it was an example of “groupthink” where a desire for conformity leads to dysfunctional outcomes. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree about this, so let’s look at some examples:

  • Readers recently complained on the Tor website about K. Arsenault Rivera appropriating Asian culture in her recently published novel The Tiger’s Daughter. This fell into silence when some more perceptive individuals pointed out that Rivera isn’t white. I gather that means it’s an attack that should be reserved for white people.
  • Writer Jenny Trout led a child rape and racism campaign against Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel titled Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. The campaign succeeded in getting the book removed from book shelves, but then it turned out that Man is an activist African American woman writing about her own cultural history.
  • Speaking about the results, author N.K. Jemisin complained about the 2013 SFWA election in her Guest of Honor speech at the convention Continuum in Australia, “Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges,” she said, “not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” This seems like a stretch as an attack on the SFWA, but other people piled on regardless.
  • Generally virtue signaling provokes an avalanche of “me, too” responses, some of which can turn into vicious attacks like the one against Fionna Man. This is where the conformity problem comes into play. Everyone knows they need to publicly express certain views (as Gerrold pointed out), so once an issue is suggested, they pile on the opportunity to show their conformity. This is regardless of whether they have put any thought into whether the attack is justified or what effect it might really have in the long term. Some people really don’t care.

    Last year there was an argument at File770 where posters discussed freedom of expression and how it should be used to dictate morality. Posters apparently supported the idea that it’s fine to attack people regardless of the accuracy of your claims because this publicizes you own views (virtue signaling) and also indicates what views should be considered morally wrong and unacceptable to the public. This also assumes any injury done by the attack is socially advantageous because it will intimidate others who might be tempted to express the “wrong” views. There was no concern about what kind of personal damage this does to individuals who are erroneously attacked.

    Meanwhile, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, says in his new book Principles: Life and Work that independent thinking is the most important principle for an “idea meritocracy” to rebuild our society in a better way. What should we do about that?

Review of Heathens by Jonah Bergan

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I’m actually gone on vacation again, and there’s going to be a delay while I work through Cixin Liu’s Death’s End at 600 pages. To fill in, here’s a review of one of those underrepresented voices that would be hard to find in offerings from the big publishers.

Things in the US have come apart. The Free Republic of Texas holds most of the Central US, and the Kingdom of God holds most of the North and East, except for a strip right along the coast where UN Peacekeepers hold ground they call the “colonies.” Only the Deep South of Florida, Georgia and Alabama is still called the United States. Holden lives in a disputed, ruined city, and like many young LGB people has a talent developing. His is telekinesis, but others have different talents which make them targets for people who consider the powers demonic. When Holden’s lover is killed by hostiles, he leaves home and is taken in by Sol as part of his family. Sol is for trying to reestablish peace, but he is opposed by Clarissa who wants to fight against the enemy. Motivated by anger and hate, Holden grows more militant. He moves to Clarissa’s camp, where he finds other young people like himself who want to fight back. Eventually Holden has to make a decision about what’s right.

This is a young adult novel in the popular dystopia sub-genre. It’s written in first and second person, as Holden narrates events for us and also speaks to the enemy as “you.” The political divisions presented by the book echo the slash and burn tactics of current politics, where the extremes of right and left attack the voices in the center. It’s well-written, with Holden’s narrative providing both the flow of his thoughts and feelings and a clear picture of both the city and what goes on within it.

On the negative side, a lot of people die here. It’s a dark vision that isn’t likely to encourage hope in younger generations. Also, I can’t see where any but LGB teens are developing the talents, though some straight kids do get ground up and/or join the fight. This means the book is tightly aimed at a particular audience when broadening the cast of characters would increase the audience size.

I like the message. Four stars.

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.

Victimhood as Political Power

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So, after the quickie comparison, I’m now back to commenting on social trends. Today’s topic is victimhood and how this is used as a political weapon. This connection shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone. Just typing “victimhood” into a search engine produces an amazing array of articles on the subject and the effects and possible effects of victimhood on current politics and society.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, here’s how it works. A person or group of people experiences unfair treatment that leaves them injured and at societal disadvantage. These individuals then claim that other members of society owe them deference, change and/or reparations based on moral obligation. There are a number of examples around of this kind of behavior. For example, here’s a right-leaning article that mentions John McCain’s exploitation of his status as prisoner-of-war and Gabby Giffords’ exploitation of her status as a shooting victim to push their political agendas.

In a recent article, Jamie Bartlett points out that in a victimhood culture, everyone wants to be a victim. This is, of course, so s/he can be seen as someone who deserves respect. Bartlett also points out that the profusion of arguments over who is being victimized reduces the resources that should be going to identifying real social ills and finding solutions for these. This is an important point.

The big advantage to victimhood is that it confers moral power, which can often be translated to political power. Conor Friedersdorf quotes sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning in an article here, who describe characteristics of victimhood: “…rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”

Freidersdorf points out some of the problems with what he calls “victimhood culture.” According to the author, there is no solution to a victimhood argument, as it only leads to a shouting match between offended groups. Interestingly, he notes that “victimhood culture is likeliest to arise in settings where there is some diversity and inequality, but whose members are almost equal.” Friedersdorf includes some examples, but a more widely publicized one occurred recently at Oberlin College where the victimhood of slavery collided rather unsuccessfully with the Holocaust. Predictably, responses to Freidersdorf article called his use of the word “victimhood” a microaggression .

My comments aren’t to say that political pressure groups don’t address real problems in culture and society. However, I’d like to suggest that remaining mired in victimhood can warp an individual’s self-image and end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we really believe in diversity,then shouldn’t we have a look at Okorafor’s opinion? As an outsider to American culture, she seems to think harmonizing and looking for solutions can lead to positive results.

How is postmulticulturalism changing US society?

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More on the ongoing discussion of social change.

There seem to be a number of changes appearing in US society that have built on past policies. First, minorities have had about 50 years to get used to promotion and concerns about their needs. Affirmative action wasn’t just a government policy, but has been embraced by progressives as a way to increase social justice, and in many cases, right the wrongs of the past. Although retrospective discussions of multiculturalism complain about lip service to diversity, minorities made real gains during this period.
Regardless of this, many young people seem to have lost touch with the movements that led to their current position in society. For example, white women have benefitted greatly from affirmative action and the second wave feminist agenda, but in a recent poll came out 67% against affirmative action policies. Clinton’s bid for the presidency also also lacks support from young women who take the idea of a strong female presidential candidate for granted.

In the same way, young African Americans have lost touch with Civil Rights Era activism. A recent spring break history quiz from Bill O’Reilly found that some young African Americans don’t even know what the Civil War was about. Native Americans managed to maintain their traditional ways through abuses of the assimilation era, but now they’re now losing their young people to the attractions of cell phones and social media.

In the midst of this, young people are also expressing strong concerns about safety and minority treatment, with mixed results. Although figures of authority are clearly feeling the pressures, it’s unlikely the demands will made headway. Student demonstrators at the University of Missouri, for example, found that their activism had immediate results in the resignation of the school president. However, it quickly became clear he was only a small wheel in the larger power structure. Once the state legislature stepped in, the school suffered budget cuts and faculty involved in the demonstrations lost their jobs.

In the face of these societal changes, many US residents continue to hold highly conservative views about values, politics and social change. Some of these voices are undoubtedly behind the wane of multiculturalism. As issues with national security have arisen, these conservative voices have grown stronger, increasing the calls for greater national safety in assimilation.

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