Are Personal Attacks Protected by Law?

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While I looking through the various developments on the efforts to silence speech, I came across some interesting cases related to “free speech” that I’d like to review. In explanation, the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees speech free from government interference. There are a few limitations to this; for example, when you’re a government employee. However, the First Amendment doesn’t cover speech in the private sector. That means employees are subject to the policy of their employer as far as speech goes. Also, “public” persons are subject to more stringent standards in libel or defamation lawsuits and have to show malice, rather than just negligence in order to win damages.

Looking at the cases, the NRA vs. San Francisco Board of Supervisors suit is fairly straight-forward. It’s about infringement of constitutional rights because the Board of Supervisors is a government entity. That means the NRA, in their suit, is charging the San Francisco government is interfering with their ability to advocate for their political views (okay, plus defamation).

Here’s a a more complex and interesting suit that’s currently working its way through the courts in Virginia. Edward Tayloe is currently party to a lawsuit to preserve Confederate statues in the Charlottesville downtown. University professor and activist Jalane Schmidt provided quotes to a local newspaper article in which she called Tayloe a “slavery apologist,” among other things. Tayloe responded with a defamation suit claiming Schmidt wrongly portrayed him as a racist, which hurt his reputation and his ability to do business in the city. Although Schmidt works for a government entity (a state university), the Virginia Department of Risk Management found the case fell outside of the scope of her employment. The ACLU stepped in to defend her and filed for a dismissal, arguing Schmidt’s speech is covered by the First Amendment, and labeling the suit a SLAPP (a strategic lawsuit against public participation). The motion also notes that Schmidt’s statements are opinion, “a well-protected category of speech.”

So, is any “opinion” you express about a person protected by law? Does this allow open season for personal attacks (a.k.a. author bullying)? Can you call anyone you don’t like a racist (for example) and damage their career (as a writer, for example)? This has recently developed into a common problem in publishing, especially in the Young Adult market, where “fans” attack books as racist to get them pulled from publication. Should this kind of action be protected speech?

Of course, there are limits on personal attacks. Some kinds of speech are not protected. In 2017 an online argument about gaming escalated to “swatting” that resulted in an innocent person’s death. Understandably, the person who initiated the call to police was convicted of charges including interstate threats and involuntary manslaughter, but two other gamers who were involved in the argument were also convicted of felony conspiracy. A similar incident happened in 2015 when Lou Antonelli swatted David Gerrold after an argument on the Hugo Awards. Luckily this incident was resolved without fatalities.

So, have personal attacks become an acceptable pattern of expression in the current political climate? Do people even realize when they’ve doing it? Should verbal bullying be protected speech?

Is the term “racist” losing its meaning?

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One thing that’s emerged from the US political campaigning in the last week or so is the willingness of EVERYONE, to scream that the other side is racist. This is a problem that’s been growing for a while. In 2017 John Worther wrote a piece for CNN where he notes that liberals overuse both the terms “racist” and “white supremacist,” mostly as a way to shut down discussion or as a weapon to fight other social philosophies. So far, this has been fairly successful. Universities, companies, government, publishers–all have stopped what they were doing when called racist, evaluated, apologized and changed their policies in an effort to better accommodate minorities. We’ve reached the point; however, that people on all sides seem by default to call the other’s attitudes and comments racist. This suggests that the term has become just meaningless name calling.

Worse, in many cases it seems clear that people are crying “racist” when they don’t get their way, or are not allowed the additional privilege they expect based on their personal achievements and/or ethnic group. This is something that whites have been doing for a long time, but now it seems minorities are doing it, too. In 2018, for example, US African American skater Shani Davis called the results of a coin toss racist when he didn’t win the opportunity to represent the US in the Olympic opening ceremonies. About the same time, Fox News president John Moody was vilified for commenting that athlete choices for the Olympics should be based on ability rather than race, pointing out that that the Summer Olympics, for example, normally has a much higher number of black athletes than the Winter Olympics.

One of the problems with claiming “cultural appropriation” is that it defines particular elements of culture as belonging to some racial or ethnic group. This also suggests that ethnic culture should not be exchanged or modified in any way in encounters with other cultures. Doesn’t this damage everyone?

Since I mentioned attacks on Zoe Saldena for not being black enough for a movie role in the last post, I thought maybe I should go on and look at some related issues. About the same time, Scarlet Johansson withdrew from a starring role as a transgender man in the film Rub & Tug. The attacks on Saldena didn’t really start until the movie was ready for release, so were something of an embarrassment but not a deal killer. However, the Rub & Tug project seems to have stalled after Johansson withdrew. This is basic economics. A big name star attracts investors, who want to make money on their investment. If the film tanks with an unknown in the starring role, they won’t get beans. Apparently none of Hollywood’s transgender actors have been able to inspire confidence, so the movie is likely dead. Isn’t this retrograde progress for the transgender community, if not downright bad press?

Johansson said a lot of nice, politically correct things at the time, but she also mentioned that she thought actors should be able to play any role they wanted, which caused a definite kerfuffle. This same discussion about “cultural appropriation” is going on in the publishing world. What happens if we limit actors/writers/publishers to playing only to their own ethnic group?

Is the term “person of color” racist?

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Following the Yesterday review seems like a good time to consider this question. Looking through the interviews and publicity appearances after the film, I’m stuck by star Himesh Patel’s apparent discomfort during discussions of the casting decisions. This suggests that a microaggression is taking place, in other words, an uncomfortable reference to his racial/ethnic background and to himself as a “person of color.” He’s clearly a very talented actor/singer/musician, so why shouldn’t he have been cast in this role? Doesn’t his discomfort mean the whole fanfare about the casting is actually coming off as racist?

The week I wrote this review, there was a national flap when the four-person “Squad” of young, liberal, aggressive, “women of color” Congresswomen (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar) got into a Twitter fight with President Trump. This let to various people airing viewpoints. For example, Tucker Carlson’s guest Roger Kimball denounced “person of color” as a racist term because “the idea is that somehow you are trapped by your skin color.”

Certainly the term sets up a division that causes discomfort within various groups. For example, Nadra Widatalla writes in the LA Times that the term is meant to be inclusive, but that means it erases the ethnic identity of persons it’s applied to. It lumps everybody not legally defined as white into a big melting pot, regardless of their status in society. It gives Asians and African Americans equal status as minorities, for example, when actually Asians are so successful in US society that they might as well be defined as white, while African Americans generally experience the greatest discrimination.

In this same interview on the Carlson show, Kimball commented that the term is also meant to give virtue to a particular group of people based on their skin color. This virtue has been apparent for a while. We can assume people like Rachel Dolezal and Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t be trying to claim “person of color” status if it didn’t confer particular advantages. Arab Americans wouldn’t be trying to withdraw from the white race and become “people of color” unless there weren’t social and political advantages to the move. And Danny Boyle wouldn’t be using a discussion of his casting decisions for publicity unless he thought it would help sell the film.

Some political commentators went further than Kimball, complaining that the four women of The Squad are actually demanding power and privilege in political decisions because of their race. This kind of identity politics goes beyond just black/white relations, too. Just a while back, Zoe Saldena was judged not black enough to play Nina Simone in the biopic of the singer’s life. This suggests that there is a hierarchy within the “people of color” community that gives greater virtue to persons with darker skin. But then, isn’t looking at skin color as a qualification inherently racist?

Maybe Ibram X. Kendi, Director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center on NPR, gets it right. He says we should recognize the equality of all racial groups. Does this mean getting rid of designations based on color?

Review of “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Lightspeed Magazine in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Jamie feels like both a girl and a boy, which seems to come from a confusion of past lives where they lived as one or the other. Jamie’s friend Alicia tells them a murderer Benjamin Avery and his family are moving in down the street. When Jamie sees the man, it jump starts a train of memory. After some research, they remember this is the man who was supposed to have killed them in their last life when they were a girl named Janie. But that’s not right—it was someone else. Benjamin rescues Jamie from the neighborhood bullies, and they talk. Memory strikes again, and Jamie remembers who the murderer really was. Is there any way to clear Benjamin and make the real murderer pay?

This is a very well-developed story with a great plot and great characters both. The description is first rate, and the neighborhood and age-level kid details feel real. The plot Jamie and Alicia come up with to track down the real murderer is highly entertaining. There are also some interesting asides here, too, where Jamie refers to his dog Meetu as a teddy bear trapped in a pit bull’s body. Hm. A touch of satire there? The ending is also satisfying, where Jamie decides to act on their feelings for the lesbian Alicia.

Regardless that this is both touching and entertaining, it has something of a forced feel because of all the sexual and gender diversity. I don’t think it necessarily follows that being born as both a male and female in past lives is going to lead to gender confusion in this one. It seems like a characteristic that would carry over fairly clearly from one existence to another.

Four stars.

Who controls SFF?

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One interesting study result I reported in my last blog is that conservatives are more likely to read popular or “low-brow” type fiction while liberals are more likely to read “sophisticated” or literary type fiction. This suggests an interesting way to identify the ideological worldview of fans for various purposes.

First, I think this explains why the Sad/Rabid Puppies have complained about the major SFF awards not serving the whole community. A quick sort of the top 20 Science Fiction Best Sellers at Amazon this week shows about 66% conservative, versus maybe 33% liberal if you consider the classics literary (i.e. A Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Man in the High Castle). If you knock out books with recent media tie-ins, then the percentage of apparent liberals drops to 10%. Both these results support my previous suggestion that liberals are a distinct minority in the community. Because the major SFF awards tend to be literary in nature, this means they’re likely run by and voted on by a small minority, which suggests the most visible and most highly promoted works via these awards are also aimed at a small minority of fans.

This will vary by the award, of course. Since I’ve been doing reviews of the winners and finalists for some of these, I think I’ve ended up with something of a feel for how literary they are. Following the method above, this will give me an idea of who’s voting. Based on the artistic quality of the finalist group, the World Fantasy Award runs most literary. The SFWA, as I’ve mentioned in past blogs, seems to have made a serious effort to make the Nebula Award more representative in the last couple of years. That means the nominees are a mix of styles and subgenres, some literary and some popular. The Hugo award actually seems to run fairly conservative (as pointed out by the Daily Dot), and often as not, the nominees seem to fall into a fairly non-literary category. There are a few works on the list with depth and subtext, but not that many. Currently, the Hugo Award seems to be most most vulnerable to political influence of these three. (See individual reviews for more information on the ratings of individual finalists.)

So what does this say about publishers? I think this suggests that major publishers are actually struggling to reconcile their pursuit of awards with a pursuit of sales. It’s true that awards can help promote a work, but they’re also a double-edged sword. If a book is too literary, then most of the audience won’t read it. Amazon is the great leveling force—six out of the top 20 of the SF Best Sellers I recently reviewed look to be self-published. These fall squarely into the conservative popular taste, including military SF and SF romance. Five others were published by presses I didn’t recognize. This leaves only nine of the 20 top sellers released by major publishers. And yes, I know the Amazon Best Sellers list is affected by the vagaries of new releases, other media releases, various promotions, etc. I’d like to look at the SF & Fantasy Best Sellers list, too, but right now it appears to be swamped by Harry Potter.

These results also suggest that the Dragon Award, based on a broad popular vote, might actually be more accurate at reflecting a) tastes of conservative readers, b) tastes of the majority of readers and c) projected sales of various genres of SFF books.

So who’s in control? The liberal/literary crowd is clearly most visible in the awards systems. But, having gone through the research, I’m thinking conservatives, moderates and “other” are still really in control of the popular SFF taste. That’s the population that’s still driving most of sales.

Conservative vs. Liberal in the SFF Community

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Following up on the last blog, why do liberals/progressives feel like they have to force change? Why does N.K. Jemisin, for example, feel like she has to stand up in front of the WorldCon audience and accuse the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minorities (i.e. racism)? Is she right? And once she’s been privately called “graceless” because of this, why do some members of the community feel they have to leap to her defense?

I’d like to suggest this is because liberals remain in a distinct minority within the community, and the fact that liberals remain a minority means they have to try harder to be heard. Minority status for liberals in the SFF community somewhat defies conventional wisdom. There’s been quite a split in the community in recent years along political lines. I’ve seen a ton of articles about how the community is now more progressive because it’s inclusive of minorities and women. Supposedly there has been a big swing in publishing toward works these members read and write. Meanwhile, the big seller this year was classed as hard SF, Andy Weir won the Dragon Award, and I met an engineer last night who asked me for a list of authors who wrote books he might like.

So, have the demographics actually changed that much? Since there aren’t a lot of studies about readership in the SFF community, I’ll have to look at general demographics. In the US Gallup says conservatives and moderates heavily outnumber liberals; about 42% of the population identify as conservative, 35% as moderate and 20% as liberal, with 3% other. If you assume the SFF community also breaks out this way, then liberals are actually a huge minority. Even if the community has a much bigger liberal faction than the general population, this still likely leaves this group well into minority status. The Daily Dot recently identified WorldCom as a conservative organization. Because of all noise about diversity in the Hugo Awards, this may seem a little surprising, but maybe it’s not, after all.

Are Hugo finalists suffering from affirmative action?

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Now that it looks like the cat is out of the bag on how WorldCon members feel about the Hugo finalists, maybe we can analyze what went on with the programming. For anyone who missed it, WorldCon staff sent out the following about finalists who weren’t included on the program: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Then I had a conversation with a WorldCon member who admitted she didn’t really read anything, but actually nominated and voted based on the authors’ minority status.

Because of the volume of material out there, I suspect this is a standard practice for WorldCon voters. You feel obligated, so you look through the lists of recommended works, check the biographies and pick out the writers who advertise the most minority status. This discharges your responsibility as a progressive, and then you can spend your time at the con enjoying activities and authors you really like. (In this case, that looked to be panels full of white men.)

The problem is, this leads to a reality gap. It means that various authors are being promoted by a literary award system based on who they are rather than the quality of their work. It also means that quality now means pretty much zilch in the award. Certainly as a faithful reviewer of Hugo finalists, I’ve noticed wide variance in the quality of works nominated (both by Puppies and “organic” WorldCon voters). So, do members ever get around to reading these books at all? Will they get bored and impatient if they have to listen to too much from those darn finalists? After all, they got voted in, right? What else do they want?

Meanwhile on the other side of the story, a group of authors thinks they’ve been recognized because people appreciate their work. They’re excited to go to the con and interact with their fans, and instead, they’re being brushed off into back rooms by the programming committee. This is disrespectful considering their status as finalists for a prestigious award—and they feel like their careers will suffer as a result.

So, are these finalists actually being harmed? Affirmative action has been around long enough for people to judge the results, and a few research studies have investigated both the short and long term affects. The conclusion is that affirmative action policies do generally work in increasing diversity within a population, but not always how you’d expect. For example, the most noticeable result is that affirmative action tends to strongly benefit white women. Meanwhile, minorities who are targeted by the worst discrimination, like black and Hispanic men, may actually lose ground.

Currently there’s some soul searching going on because of an Asian class-action suit against Harvard University alleging discrimination in admissions. This has brought up the topic of “mismatch,” a theory that suggests some minorities might actually be harmed by promotion into an environment where they don’t really have the skills to compete. This would be beginning authors, for example, who are nominated before they’ve really gotten control of their skills as a writer. This means people might lose respect for them, stop reading their work, etc. So, is this happening to minorities who win the Hugo?

So far, it doesn’t look that way, complaints from this year’s finalists notwithstanding. They still get the name recognition, and appealing winners have gone on to become poster children, nominated again and attractive for film and TV deals. For example, see recent winners Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin and Victor LaValle. There’s also at least a small bump in readership.

Maybe it’s a question of whether the ideas actually stand up?

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