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?

What If? Attacks on Rocket Stack Rank

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A furor erupted this week in SFF cyberspace about pronouns and how reviewer Greg Hullender of Rocket Stack Rank has made light of them. For anyone just tuning in, Rocket Stack Rank (RSR) is a review site run by Hullender and Eric Wong that provides brief reviews of stories eligible for the major SFF awards, including the Nebula, the Hugo, and presumably the Bram Stoker and other awards.

The site has received a lot of positive notice, and recently Hullender was tapped to serve on the Locus panel that feeds the major awards. In response, a group of SFF authors posted an open letter complaining about the pronoun issue and Hullender’s take on trans and non-binary characters in the reviews, also calling him a racist for good measure. Since I’m not trans or non-binary, I’m going to refrain from commenting on this. Everybody is entitled to their own feelings. However, I just wrote the last blog on virtue signaling, so I’m looking at this dust up through that lens.

Hullender promptly posted an apology to “all readers and authors we’ve harmed and offended.” This was judged unacceptable because he also wrote a response to the charges with evidence to demonstrate how they were questionable. Of course, it’s unsupportable to discriminate against people because of their race, gender or trans status, but what if this is actually about something else?

David Gerrold recently made some interesting comments at Amazing Stories. He basically says that members of the SFF community have to stand up and take sides in the progressive/conservative fight in order to save their reputations. This is troubling because it suggests you can’t just remain neutral. Instead, you have to take sides, and then to signal your virtue through word and action in order to be accepted in the community. So why are Hullender and Wong being attacked? Have they not done this properly?

The authors of the open letter think they’re insensitive racists. Hullender seems to think they‘re thoughtful progressives. So, are they posting discriminatory reviews, or are they just posting equal opportunity bad reviews for stories they don’t like?

Trans is the current cause célèbre. Is critiquing the stories not proper virtue signaling? What are members of the community expecting instead?

The Legend of Guinevere

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In honor of the release of Tales of the Once and Future King by Superversive Press, I’m doing a background piece on my story in the anthology, “The Knight of Crows.” This is about Guinevere as a girl-queen, and the first encroachments of evil to bedevil her soul. This is just one contribution to a longer work. Look for the full tome available on Amazon.

Camelot is about perfection. The legend came together out of oral tradition, a tale of heroes that devoted their lives to defending Britain against the armies of evil. As Christianity came along, the legend absorbed these doctrines, becoming more and more about purity and the quest for the Holy Grail. This quest is about living your life properly, of course, and about trying to be perfect, but we all know how that goes. Bad things just happen to good people regardless.

In this case, the problem was falling in love. Guinevere the girl-queen is married to the perfect man. She has everything a woman could possibly want, but she falls in love with her husband’s best friend instead, the flawed but heroic Sir Lancelot. It’s uncertain in the tales about how this happens. Maybe it was engineered by the evil Morgan le Fay as a way to get to Arthur, and maybe it’s just the vagaries of the human heart, but whatever, it grows from the first tiny seeds to an obsession that extends through years and eventually grows so heated that it’s visible to everyone. At this point, the affair is a wedge set to crack the golden walls of Camelot into ruin. Arthur condemns Guinevere to death for adultery and goes to fighting his own knights, who see his distraction as a weakness and an opportunity to further their own ambitions. Guinevere escapes to a convent; Lancelot escapes to becomes a monk; Arthur wins his fight for the kingdom with the usurper Mordred, but is mortally wounded. The Lady of the Lake takes back the Sword Excalibur into her safekeeping. Fini. End. But will Arthur return in a different guise?

The interesting thing about the evolution of this legend is the way Guinevere became the central figure over a span of centuries. In the beginning, there was only the hero tales, and not much information about the queen—varying stories of her parentage and background, about how she came to marry the king. Stories of heroes are one thing, but they don’t tell us that much about the human condition. Fully developed, with Guinevere in place, we get to see how the quest for perfection is undermined by human nature and the inability to deal with our failings, our needs and the attractions of our darker side.

Tales of the Once and Future King from Superversive Press.

Contributors:
B Morris Allen
Bokerah Brumley
Lela E Buis
Katharina Daue
Jon Etter
Declan Finn
L Jagi Lamplighter
Anthony Marchetta (editor)
Mariel Marchetta (assistant editor)
K A Masters
R C Mulhare
Mandy Nachampassack-Maloney
Peter Nealen
Morgon Newquist
Victor Rodriguez
Matthew P Schmidt
Jonathan E Shipley
Justin M Tarquin
Joshua M Young
Ben Zwycky

Review of They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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This book is near future science fiction and was published by Harper Teen in 2017. It runs about 384 pages. Silvera is of Puerto Rican heritage and lives in New York City.

Mateo Torrez is eighteen. He’s reading the CountDowners blog at 12:22 a.m. when he receives his final alert from Death-Cast. His dad is in the hospital in a coma and Mateo doesn’t want to spend his End Day alone, so he brings up the Last Friend app and looks for someone to spend the day with. Rufus Emeterio is seventeen. He’s beating up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend Peck when his phone sounds the Death-Cast alert. His gang the Plutos plans a great funeral for him, but Peck spoils it by calling the police. Rufus escapes and looks on the Last Friend app to find someone to spend his End Day with. The two boys find each other and set out to live adventures they’ve not tried before. Is there a way they can escape death at the end?

Good points: This story is very positive and life-affirming. Mateo is shy and reclusive and Rufus is assertive and slipping into bad behavior. The two boys influence each other to change in a single day, where Mateo comes out of his shell and Rufus takes up a lot of his new friend’s kindness. They end up with a relationship that’s more than just “friends” by the time evening rolls around. The story also touches other people’s lives on their End Day that cross the boys’ path. Of course, there’s a philosophical thread to all this, about how we should live our lives every day, but Silvera spends most of his time with the characters, leaving the philosophy subtle.

Not so good points: Silvera is very focused on the characters and their interactions and tends to neglects the action line. I can’t really complain about the plotting. There’s a sequence of events, subplots that include other characters, and a suitable finale. These provide little peaks of interest, but without the rising action line, the story fails to develop much drama. Slivera may be working to make the story gentle and encouraging for teens instead, but some authors would have made this a real heart-breaker.

Silvera gets extra points for having such fresh ideas.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

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This book was published in 2017 by Hogarth, and is promoted as interrelated stories. It would most likely be classified as psychological dark fantasy, though a couple of the stories might be considered science fiction. Enriquez is Argentinian and the work is translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell.

I was expecting something like Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, but this work didn’t really produce a timeline or anything like a plot; instead, the stories are only tenuously connected by setting and sometimes character names. The tales are variously described as gothic, macabre and spooky, which is appropriate reading as we move into October. They provide brief glimpses of unreality, psychosis and death as the author takes us into the minds of people with different and terrifying visions.

Almost all Enriquez’ main characters in the stories are women. She’s a very strong writer, and her characterizations and imagery suck you in gradually, as people who first appear normal begin to slide into different perceptions. Her stories include a lot of social criticism, taking place against a backdrop of poverty and addiction, and cover issues like cutting, anorexia, murder, suicide, hikikomori and even more horrifying personal statements. Highly recommended.

I don’t think this will fly as a novel in the 2017 awards cycle, but I’m going to post some of the stories on the Nebula Reading List. I also think some of these stories would be excellent choices for the Stoker Award. I’m not a member of the HWA, but I’d like to recommend this book to people who are.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

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This is the second novel in the Machineries of Empire series, following Ninefox Gambit. It was published in 2017 by Solaris and runs about 400 pages.

Picking up from the rubble left at the end of the previous book, Cheris/Jedeo uses her rank to invoke the Kel formation instinct and take over a fleet of ships on the way to defend against the Hafn. She/he overcomes the commanding General Kel Khiruev, and then continues the battle and pursuit of the Hafn fleet. Because Cheris/Jedeo has Jedeo’s mannerisms, everyone assumes he is in control of Cheris’ body, and responds accordingly. Cheris/Jedeo also mounts a propaganda campaign against the Hexarcate, planning a radical challenge to the reigning system. Will she/he be able to carry it off?

This novel is much more conventional than Ninefox Gambit. It assumes you’re familiar with the themes, the calendar and doctrine system the Hexarchate runs on and the concept of formation instinct, so the author doesn’t spend much time reviewing these. Instead, we get character development for the major characters, including General Khiruev, the instinct-resistant Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan and Hexarch Mikodez. There is nothing from Cheris/Jedeo’s point of view, and we see her/him only through the eyes of others.

On the positive side, I think some readers may like this book better because it offers fewer challenges and more intimate personal views of the decadence within the empire. Cheris/Jedeo is attempting to replace this system, which means he/she is working against slavery and torture. To the degree she/he is successful, we’re gratified.

On the negative side, I miss the blazing pace, action and drama in the first book—I liked those challenges. Having correctly interpreted the ending of Ninefox Gambit, I wasn’t led astray by the avoidance of Cheris/Jedeo’s viewpoint, which meant there wasn’t any drama in the attempt at a twist ending here. I suspect the author has made a mistake in revealing too many plot elements too soon in this series. The result is that nothing much happened in this book; most of it is taken up by gloomy ruminations from the various characters.

I’m also wondering how Cheris/Jedeo’s propaganda campaign was carried out. I had formed the impression that many of the citizens of this empire were isolated and unaware of what the ruling class and the military were up to. Are they actually connected on social media somehow?

Three stars.

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