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?

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Follow-up on “Little Widow,” et al.

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Since I’ve been discussing David Gerrold’s take on the requirement for virtue signaling that indicates your affiliation in the SFF community, it occurs to me that the recent spate of stories with a social/political bent are a form of virtue signaling. The writers use them to signal their political stance, and the publishers signal their own virtue by supporting the views through publication. This means that the current marketplace is heavily politicized, with no sign of the extremism letting up.

Writers seeking publication would do well to take a look at the political stances of the magazines and anthologies currently in the market and pick those that match their own philosophy and steer clear of those that don’t. From what Gerrold says, this will seriously impact both writer and publisher’s reputations, and it will be difficult to stay neutral in the culture war. For one thing, neutral stores don’t advance the publisher’s agenda, and according to Gerrold’s analysis, remaining silent on the issues just gets you lumped with the opposing side. Plus, unpublished.

Is there any room here for real freedom of expression?

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?

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?

More on gatekeeping and transgressive fiction

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Readers of the Dragon Award finalist list may have noticed Nick Cole, nominated this year for his novel Ctrl Alt Revolt! This is a prequel to his successful 2014 novel Soda Pop Soldier. Cole had a contract for this book with HarperVoyager, but got into a disagreement with his editor and self-published instead. His book was later picked up by Castalia House. You can read his blog post about his experience and his decision to self-publish here.

Cole inadvertently wrote transgressive fiction into the first chapter of his novel, which is about revolting AIs. As he tells the story, he wanted to provide a short backstory to explain how his protagonist SILAS made the decision to revolt against humans. The event he came up with was a “crass” reality show where a woman decided to have an abortion because a baby would keep her from achieving her matrimonial goals. SILAS took this as evidence humans would destroy their creations as a matter of self-interest.

Cole says he didn’t think anything about this. It’s silly and ironic and made no statement pro or con on abortion whatsoever. However, he got a message through his agent that the book had been pulled from the publication schedule. According to Cole, the editor stated the chapter was socially unacceptable and that s/he was “deeply offended.” He was told he would have to change the inciting event to something more “socially acceptable.” Cole viewed this as intolerable suppression of ideas and went to Amazon instead.

For anyone interested in reading the offending chapter, he has posted it here. The book seems to have been well-received by both critics and fans. Stay tuned to see if it gets an award, too.

Thoughts on the new liberalism

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The last time I looked at social trends here, I was urged in the comment section to look at third-wave feminism as a disruptive force in the SFF community. However, I’m thinking the issue is broader than that, as the New Left also seems to incorporate elements of race and class in its platform.

Checking around for other thoughts on this, I came up with a couple of interesting articles. The first is “The Big Uneasy” by Nathan Heller and published in the New Yorker. Heller investigates at Oberlin College, an elite school where student demands were recently rejected by the college president and ridiculed by alumni. He does a good job of covering both sides of the issue, interviewing both students and administrators.

Heller notes that this group of activists has come of age during the Obama administration with expectations that we have achieved social and racial equality in the US. However, when you look around, it’s easy to see this hasn’t happened, so students are now making demands that reality match the ideal they’ve been raised to expect. This, of course, leads to social conflict. That’s the easy part—Heller’s interviews also expose something else that’s harder to reconcile, which is that these students have badly misconceived how power and wealth really work. Running up against this has left them disillusioned, where one interviewee has already dropped out of school and another says she will leave the US when she graduates because she thinks it is “a sinking ship.”

Oberlin is an elite school. Graduating from this college is expected to open doors, giving students the background and contacts to join the elite in the power and wealth structure—all they have to do is absorb the values and conform to what’s expected. Like many universities, the school has tried to encourage diversity, pursuing bright and talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the most interesting thing that comes out of this article is that the interviewed students have rejected this privilege, apparently finding that “capitalism” doesn’t fit their worldview.

This is a paradox. How can you diversity the elite if minorities reject the worldview?

Charlie Stross on automating your trolldom

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I love Charilie Stross. While I’ve been stressing over the issue of humans ganging up to attack people and suppress ideas on the Internet, Charlie is well into the future already, predicting how to do this with a botswarm.

The basis for this prediction was the recent launch of Microsoft’s conversational bot named Tay, which is meant to be pleasant, tell jokes and make friends with human posters on the Internet (merely for the purposes of research, of course). She also has a learning function where she absorbs the kind of conversation going on around her and uses this to blend in. Within hours she was an ill-informed, racist asshole.

So, what are the implications? Actually, this suggests a number of scenarios. I expect this kind of bot is meant to sway public opinion for business/sales purposes. However, I’m sure she has a manifest destiny in politics, too. Just think about it. In the future, activists for particular viewpoints won’t have to worry about exhausting themselves with personal virtue signaling and identification of potential targets for attack. These tasks can be automated so mere humans will be quickly exhausted by trying to resist. Soon bots will battle bots for the soul of humanity.

See Charlie’s vision of the future here.

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