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?

Are negative reviews politically incorrect?

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A recent discussion about reviews has caused me to Google about on the subject. In the last couple of blogs, I’ve noted opinions about the trend toward positive reviews, but there are some more pointed opinions out there on the issue of negative vs. positive reviews. This is the third and last blog on the subject.

Rafia Zakaria, writing for The Baffler, has thrown her support firmly behind critical reviews. Unless it stings, she says, then it’s not worth anything. She also has some interesting ideas about why and how the current trend has emerged.

First, she notes that the tone and style of contemporary book reviews reads like ad copy—generally including a summary and some non-conclusions, but nothing of critical engagement or analysis of how the work might relate to the environment it emerges from. Her conclusion is that this style is based mainly on a political ethics that requires non-judgement. In other words, all readers are expected to “check their biases and privilege” before reading and not make any kind of judgement about the content or quality of the book. Ergo, writing only positive reviews is a commitment to equality and fairness for all.

However, this raises questions about affirmative action. According to Zakaria, the purpose of limiting negative reviews this way is (implicitly) to assist underprivileged and marginalized authors, whose work may be hard for readers to relate to. She suggests that critical reviews are seen as a kind of “textual violence” and therefore “a tacit endorsement of inequality, of exclusion, and marginalization.” As a marginalized minority writer herself, she feels this is a matter of the privileged taking offence on the behalf of the marginalized while at the same time suggesting that minority authors’ work is too sub-standard to stand up to a real review.

Does she have a point? Are reviews now required to serve marginalized writers through non-judgement? Is this a tacit statement on the poor quality of their work?

Then what about the other side of this? Because of the pressure for positive reviews, many reviewers won’t read something when they feel they can’t give it a good review. This means people who have written something truly different are shut out of the market. Because of the current publishing climate, this could include people with unpopular political viewpoints, people who are expressing an uncomfortable reflection of society, or people who are too rooted in their own cultural viewpoint to suit the current marketplace. Of course, minority writers who are accepted and heavily promoted by big name publishers are going to get reviews in big name publications, but what about everybody else? Is the emphasis on only positive reviews shutting out reviews of all these other works?

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?

Black male privilege

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Here’s an interesting perspective. Since African Americans are one of the minorities that count, who would think any segment of the black population would experience privilege? Here’s the report, though, provided by sociologist L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy (2014) in Brittany C. Slatton & Kamesha Spates (eds) Hyper Sexual, Hyper Masculine?: Gender, Race and Sexuality in the Identities of Contemporary Black Men (p. 75). According to Lewis-McCoy, black men experience privilege. This seems contrary to common knowledge. Evidence shows that black men in the US typically experience the most discrimination in employment, relations with the police, early death, imprisonment, etc. So where does the privilege come from?

According to Lewis-McCoy, the very fact that there are only 83 men per 100 women in the black community leads to privilege, especially if these men are accomplished. This includes entertainers, sports figures, college graduates of all kinds, writers, doctors, artists and sociologists. Because of their relative rarity, these men experience a strong systemic privilege relative to other minorities, and especially to black women (though not to white men, of course). The obvious example in this case would be in affirmative action. Looking back at the previous blog, if we reserve affirmative action for the most oppressed minority, this is certainly black men, and according to Hugo award finalist David van Dyke’s very insightful comments on the last blog, this translates to advantage.

Additionally, all black men in the US experience privilege, according to Lewis-McCoy, when it comes to accountability. Expectations for black men are low because of high levels of discrimination, so everyone takes it as a matter of course when things go wrong, never looking at the underlying personal deficiencies. Everyone blames oppression instead. This leaves black men with an out as far as personal responsibility goes. Because it’s clear they can’t accomplish anything for themselves, their families or their community, many don’t try. Instead, according to Barbara Reynolds, a certain group engages in acting out as a form of protest, which they mistake for effective activism.

The other big privilege for accomplished black men that Lewis-McCoy identifies is in negotiating sex. You can read his article for more info on that.

Looking again at the SFF community, the conventional wisdom holds—I don’t see much privilege for black men here. Instead, they are hugely under-promoted. Sites like this generally only include black women writers. How did Samuel Delaney ever make it?

Has the Hugo Turned into an Affirmative Action Award?

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Another point that came up during the recent discussion at File 770 was how the Hugo Award winners are now regarded. There was commentary on this well before the 2016 awards cycle. For example, various bloggers have noted that the awards are increasingly dominated by women and minorities. In 2015 Brad Torgersen posted his  view of this trend, which is that the Hugos are being used as an “affirmative action award”. For anyone vague on what that means, affirmative action is defined as “an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination.” The fact that anyone sees it this way is another suggestion (see previous blog) that the award voting has become politically motivated. Of course, any reasonable exchange on the idea is impossible. As one poster at File 770 noted, it is “inherently racist” to discuss the results in this way.

This is not to suggest that the winning works are not deserving. The makeup of the SFF community has clearly changed over the more than a century that SFF has been recognized as a genre. This means that readers’ tastes have changed, as well. I tend to lean progressive, and I love the interesting and creative elements that diverse authors bring to the genre. I reviewed all the winners this year and pointed out deserving elements well before the awards were given (as well as undeserving ones). However, the political squabble tends to obscure the positives. For an idea of how the response to this year’s awards went, check this exchange on Twitter.

Because of the virulence of the politics, no one these days can be sure whether they’ve won a Hugo Award based on the quality of the works or because of the politics. It looks to be a damaging experience. The Twitter exchange is another example of Internet bullying of someone who had little to do with allocation of the awards. Regardless of the Hugo committee’s efforts, you have to admit the Puppies are now right about a taint in the awards system.

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

Discrimination in the Nebula Awards?

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I’ve already got some discussion in the comments section on the Nebula results, so I’ll write a few thoughts here. The comment is to the effect that 15 of 16 winners in the fiction writing categories in the last three years have been women. I do agree that this seems to be an unusual result. It’s not like men suddenly quit writing, or even that men didn’t make it into the list of finalist.

Why were the winners all women? There are a few possibilities for this result. First, keep in mind that the Nebulas are a “closed shop” with the winners chosen by the approximately 50/50 male/female membership of professionals that belong to the SFWA organization. As I understand the process, members recommend stories over a reading period, and the Nebula jury takes the top few from the list. There’s an opportunity to make adjustments to the list if the jury thinks anything deserving has been passed over. Then the finalists are presented to the membership for vote, producing winners.

So what are the possibilities? 1) Women are just writing better stories than men these days. 2) There’s a perception among industry professionals (both male and female) that women are writing better stories. 3) There is affirmative action going on. 4) Men are uninvolved in the awards process so aren’t recommending or voting for stories that men are writing.

Taking a quick look at this year’s list-in-the-making, it appears that women are making way more recommendations than men. Is this the key? Checking the 2015 novella recommendations (easiest to count), it looks like the number of recommended stories ended up about 50/50 men/women. The top ten on the list were still 5/5. For Best Short Story the top ten on the list were 6/4 women/men. For Best Novel the top ten were again 6/4 women/men. The novelette list is currently down, so I can’t check that one.

So this looks reasonably fair. However, men lost out in the final vote. To me, that suggests that either the men in the SFWA aren’t voting in the numbers women members are, or else they’re voting for the women’s stories. That means we shouldn’t hear any grousing from guys about the results—they had their opportunity to check in and vote.

How is postmulticulturalism changing US society?

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More on the ongoing discussion of social change.

There seem to be a number of changes appearing in US society that have built on past policies. First, minorities have had about 50 years to get used to promotion and concerns about their needs. Affirmative action wasn’t just a government policy, but has been embraced by progressives as a way to increase social justice, and in many cases, right the wrongs of the past. Although retrospective discussions of multiculturalism complain about lip service to diversity, minorities made real gains during this period.
Regardless of this, many young people seem to have lost touch with the movements that led to their current position in society. For example, white women have benefitted greatly from affirmative action and the second wave feminist agenda, but in a recent poll came out 67% against affirmative action policies. Clinton’s bid for the presidency also also lacks support from young women who take the idea of a strong female presidential candidate for granted.

In the same way, young African Americans have lost touch with Civil Rights Era activism. A recent spring break history quiz from Bill O’Reilly found that some young African Americans don’t even know what the Civil War was about. Native Americans managed to maintain their traditional ways through abuses of the assimilation era, but now they’re now losing their young people to the attractions of cell phones and social media.

In the midst of this, young people are also expressing strong concerns about safety and minority treatment, with mixed results. Although figures of authority are clearly feeling the pressures, it’s unlikely the demands will made headway. Student demonstrators at the University of Missouri, for example, found that their activism had immediate results in the resignation of the school president. However, it quickly became clear he was only a small wheel in the larger power structure. Once the state legislature stepped in, the school suffered budget cuts and faculty involved in the demonstrations lost their jobs.

In the face of these societal changes, many US residents continue to hold highly conservative views about values, politics and social change. Some of these voices are undoubtedly behind the wane of multiculturalism. As issues with national security have arisen, these conservative voices have grown stronger, increasing the calls for greater national safety in assimilation.

More on multiculturalism as policy

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Vijay Mishra (2012) calls multiculturalism a “structure of control” for managing minorities without really affecting the power and position of the majority. In other words, he’s saying the majority uses the policy to sympathize with minority concerns, but only pays lip service to actual equality and remains unwilling to give up anything real. Because of this, the majority never becomes part of the cultural mosaic—it always remains outside, separate and in control. Now we’re looking at the politics of redistribution, whether you’re talking about publishing or political power.

Mishra’s is likely a good description of what the policy of multiculturalism has not accomplished over the last few decades—which is any real transfer of power and opportunity to the masses. However, it’s questionable if expectations for this were ever right in the first place. For example, C.W. Mills (1999) argues that “whiteness” isn’t actually related to color, but is instead about a set of power relations. The elite 1% that owns half the world’s wealth doesn’t really break down along racial, gender or ethnicity lines. The list of US billionaires, while admittedly mostly white and male, also includes a number of women, Asians and African Americans. When you look at the ranks of millionaires, the number of minorities increases further. This suggests the issue of redistribution of wealth and power is more about industry, opportunity and good investments than minority vs. majority status. Of course, opportunity is the huge elephant in the room.

Another issue that has affected multicultural policy in recent years within the US is the problem of the disappearing majority. White children are already a minority in the US, and as older individuals die off within the next few years, whites will achieve full minority status. This will have to change the conversation about minority vs. white privilege. For example, white voters can’t count on carrying an election through sheer numbers any longer. Whites may soon become eligible for minority scholarships and Affirmative Action support. The public schools will serve increasing numbers of POC as white populations decline. As the white middle class continues to wane, POC will have to look at shouldering more of the responsibilities for paying taxes, driving the economy and affecting political change.

The politics of multiculturalism

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I’ll continue the discussion of multiculturalism and try to work some reviews in between blogs. Here’s more on the discussion.

Assimilation was gradually replaced at about the mid-20th century by the policy of multiculturalism, which also became popular in Europe and Australia. The aim of multiculturalism is to maintain different cultural traditions within a particular society. An example of this is Canada, where French and English-speaking Canadians co-exist.

There’s a lot of variation in what constitutes a multicultural policy. Some versions only advocate equal respect or equal treatment for different groups while others may actively promote diversity as measured by ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Support for maintaining separate groups is clearly different from assimilation, but it’s not considered the same as segregation. Instead, multiculturalism is meant to respect the customs, beliefs and value systems of groups that want to maintain their own separate cultural traditions. It’s often called a “salad bowl” or a “cultural mosaic” instead of a “melting pot.”

Multiculturalism offers several benefits. First, it recognizes that culture is important to people. It also recognizes that ethnic minorities have a right to follow their own values and belief systems and still be valued in society. Once this policy is instituted, then education shifts to highlighting the value of diversity and a diverse world culture in solving social problems. Textbooks are rewritten to show the value that different cultural groups contribute to society. Conflicts are analyzed by differences in culture and participants asked to respect the other person’s viewpoint. Native American children are removed from boarding schools and returned to their parents.

Drawbacks? For one thing, all this respect for diversity reduces the ability of immigrants to assimilate into the dominant culture. It results in immigrant communities where individuals have no need to deal with the larger society. It has also spawned a culture that pushes political correctness. Efforts to promote certain minorities have pitted them against the majority, and also against other minorities. This has resulted in dissatisfaction and/or backlash from other groups.

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