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?

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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?

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?

Thoughts on Atlantic’s Interview with N.K. Jemisin

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In the run up to the Hugo Awards, Atlantic magazine’s writer Vann R. Newkirk II interviewed N.K. Jemisin on her finalist position for the Best Novel Hugo Award. Of course, The Fifth Season went on to win the award.

Jemisin’s nomination and win in the Best Novel category are historic, as she’s the first black writer to achieve this milestone. Newkirk notes the brilliance of the ideas in the novel, and Jemisin admits that a story of this length and scope has been somewhat difficult for her to deal with. Then they go on to politics in the SFF genre (i.e. the Sad/Rabid Puppies) and what has informed the content of what will be a trilogy with The Fifth Season as the first installment. Jemisin notes that she has read a lot of history that will go into the oppression theme of the trilogy. She also suggests she will add “hints” from the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust to the extant slavery theme and what Newkirk calls the “racial critiques” the first book presents.

In light of current social trends, Jemisin’s comments seem confusing. One of the hot-button topics in the culture war is cultural appropriation (already featured in other blogs here). Some people might consider Jemisin already privileged because of her American birthright, and with her nomination and Hugo win, she has now joined a privileged class of SFF writers. No one questions her right to comment about slavery and oppression, as she comes from a heritage of African American slavery, but is it cultural appropriation for her to borrow from the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust? Will it be transgressive for her to be putting words in the mouths of Asians and Jews? Also, as an American, is it transgressive for her to be making assumptions about Africa and African history?

I’ve asked these questions before just as a theoretical, but here we have an actual example. Is Jemisin planning something that will be considered cultural appropriation? Or should she not be limited by her race and heritage to writing only about certain racial groups and a certain cultural experience?

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.

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