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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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?

Why are all these potential Nebula nominees so sappy?

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There’s one more story with between five and ten recommendations on the Nebula Reading List. This is “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet” by James Van Pelt, published in Analog. I gather from other reviews that this is an entertaining read, but it’s not available online so I’ll have to defer comments. That’s means I’m done with this set of reviews and ready to sum up some thoughts.

As I expected, the message fiction thinly disguised as SFF dropped off as I got deeper into the list, to be replaced with the usual highly sentimental stuff that all the pro magazines publish these days. There’s heavy emotional content in every one of these stories. Limited themes. Four of the eight are about abused children, and one more is about elderly dementia. That suggests the Nebula is a competition to see who can provide the biggest emotional whallop.

Other than that, science fiction in general is clearly in trouble here. The two stories that might be SF only use that as a framework to present the story—it’s not at all necessary to the plot. There are no serious questions or ideas offered up, no real predictions of where we might be going in the future. I have to conclude that science fiction, what Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas” is dying. Instead, people want to cry about something.

So why is this happening? Some of it is social trends, of course. People may be just less interested in questions and ideas these days and more interested in emotional chills. But there’s something else, too, which is that this is how people are now taught to write. Last year I meant to comment on this, and I located this quote about teaching methods for children: “…an emphasis on emotions and feelings and ‘expressing’ them. This pressures children to produce work that is cathartic and trite—a very bad combination—and puts the teacher, to say nothing of the classmates, in the position of acting as an untrained, ersatz therapist…”

Unfortunately the link I have for this now seems to be bad, meaning it may have been taken down. More fortunately, there are other sources available. For example, Advanced Writing: Fiction and Film by Wells Earl Draughon offers advice on how to get started on a successful story. Draughon suggests that opening with a character is dull and boring unless some kind of suffering is also attached. This hook attracts the reader and produced sympathy for the character that will lead into the story. By definition, this emotional hook has to be trite or “stock” in order for the reader to quickly understand it. Everyone now expects this. So, in order to get your story published, you have to sift through all the trite trigger situations out there and try to find a creative way to incorporate some overused theme, i.e. child abuse, into your story. If you’re really good at it, then you can be a star writer.

But where does this leave SFF as a genre? As a potential reader, I end up with a choice of the same stock situations used repeatedly as themes because they’ve got great emotional hooks. As a writer, I’m limited in what I can present because I have to stick to these strict requirements to capture an editor’s attention. Add to this the apparent trend to progressive message fiction in the pro magazines that the top of the Nebula list indicates, and you’ve got content that’s restricted to emotional, hot-button issues with no new ideas, and heaven forbid that there be any actual science in there. It’s too cold and clinical for a story to actually ask questions about space travel or the future of the human race.

Is there any hope for change on this?

Tribalism in the SFF community

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In 2015 Brad Torgersen wrote a an interesting piece about tribalism in the SFF community. According to Torgersen, much of what is taken for racism and sexism in the US is actually a form of cultural tribalism, where people from different cultural backgrounds distrust and disrespect one another because of their difference. He lists some fundamentally different groups as examples, including religious groups, regional groups, progressives and conservatives, and notes that even people who think they are the most open-minded often exhibit sharp limits, if not open hostility, which faced with opposing cultural viewpoints.

Torgersen goes on to discuss the current battle over the Hugos, noting that the organizers of WorldCon and the Hugo Awards are a very exclusive group of trufans who consider themselves the in-tribe of science fiction and fantasy. According to him, this explains the small size of the convention and the elitist title, which suggests its members represent all real SFF fans in the world. Torgersen’s explanation of the current situation is that the Sad Puppies represented a different tribal group which was seen as a threat to the convention culture by WorldCon insiders. Of course the situation deteriorated from there. This explanation makes me wonder what the small group of core WorldCon fans thought about opening up the membership to a broad swath of Internet “supporting memberships?” Doesn’t this dilute the trufan blood?

As a side note, Torgersen calls himself a perpetual out-tribe because of never fitting in anywhere. He may have written this blog in response to attacks on Twitter, where one poster called his African American wife and biracial child “racist shields.”

Politics and Hugo Wins

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55327_girl-writing_md
Before disappearing, I was involved in another interesting discussion at File 770. It’s pretty cold now, but I think it warrants at least a couple of blog posts. The debate was about what effect the political maneuvering related to the Sad/Rabid Puppies slates has had on who wins a Hugo Award and how people see the results.

The first point that stood out for me is that posters at File 770 seem to consider the nomination slates as a political move by the Sad/Rabid Puppies, but don’t consider countervotes like “No Award” as a political response. This is part of characterizing the Puppies as a loony, sexist, racist fringe who are only trying to sabotage the Hugo Award because they are angry about diversity, while everyone else is an “organic voter,” presumably focused only on the quality of the work. This isn’t only language used at File 770, but also on various other blog and analysis sites. It seems a curious idea to me that a counter to a political strategy isn’t itself a political strategy. Hm. Something’s wrong there.

In the wake of the recent election, it’s hard to miss the clash of ideologies that went on—Clinton veering hard left versus Trump channeling the alt-right. The interesting thing is that a day after the popular vote showed 47.7% for Clinton and 47.5% for Trump (with presumably some ballots not yet counted). To those on either the conservative or liberal side who think they are a majority, it just ain’t so. Also, the fact that the polls were so far wrong shows that shutting down the opposition can produce a surprise that comes back to bite you in the butt.

And how does that apply to the SFF community? If we accept that the clash of ideologies we’ve just seen in the US election is also playing out in other segments of society, it’s likely that the Sad/Rabid Puppies are representing a valid social/political argument in their complaints about SFF publishers and the SFF awards system. This is quite probably a response to extremism on the left, as described by the various manifestos put out by the Puppies. So what does that make the political reaction from the SFF community? Is it about shutting down the discussion with a club of moral censure? About refusing to listen to heartfelt concerns because they run counter to the reigning ideology?

Shouldn’t we be looking at that roughly 50/50 split that Clinton and Trump achieved in the electorate an applying it to the conflict within the SFF community? Wouldn’t it be helpful if the community were to move a little more toward the center?

Note: Mike Glyer has asked me to note that discussions that take place at File 770 don’t necessarily represent his personal views.

Victimhood as Political Power

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55327_girl-writing_md
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.

Wrap of the postmulticultural, postblack moment

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55327_girl-writing_mdFinishing up the discussion.

So how do these trends I’ve been discussing translate to what we see happening in the SFF community? It’s kind of hard to sort out, but I’ll give it a try. Change is always uncomfortable, and mainly the recent confusion means is that we’re in the thick of it.

For one thing, there’s now a big difference in viewpoints between generations. The traditional minorities (women, people of color, LGBTQ) have all made great strides toward reaching equality of opportunity, often because of their own activism. Most magazines and anthologies now post a diversity statement and often make proactive efforts to include diverse voices. Young writers are happy to take advantage of these opportunities, but seem unaware of the activism that led to the inclusion. I’m seeing a number of articles lately from older writers and editors that note how the erasure of pioneer minority SFF leaves young minorities thinking they are the first generation to write SFF.

For another thing, bullying about political correctness is on the increase. One reason for this might be the recognition that multiculturalism as a policy only provided lip service to change and didn’t do enough to produce real opportunity. Possibly minority activists are increasing their efforts for change as they now feel the decline in support for diversity. Younger writers especially seem less tolerant of what they see as transgressions and likely to respond unfavorably.

As bullying has increased, so has the backlash. Because multiculturalism as a policy pits minorities against white men, they have in some cases suffered real injury to their reputation, opportunities and careers. This is made worse by political and generational differences. The sentiment in response has not been pretty. Cue the Hugo controversy.

Last, pressures are again on the increase for assimilation of minorities. One reason for this is the shift in public policy. Another influence, which I haven’t seen recognized in the quick research I did on this, is the leveling power of popular culture. Assimilation is a real force. Young minorities are now more likely to define themselves through popular culture than through their traditional cultures, which they may not find entirely comfortable.

All these opposing forces have led to a situation where the cultural mosaic is pretty sharp edged. What should we do about it? Well, multiculturalism did have its good points. We might consider white men and conservatives as minorities and respect their culture appropriately.

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