Jemisin vs. Silverberg: Defining Culture and Race


Since I discussed ethnicity and culture in the last Daredevil post, maybe this is a good time to go back to the Silverberg/Jemisin issue that played out after the events of WorldCon 2018. For anyone who’s been under a rock and missed the whole thing, Silverberg was displeased by Jemisin’s acceptance speech for her 3rd Best Novel win. In a discussion group he thought was private, he commented that he thought her conduct at the ceremony had been graceless and offensively political. He was immediately attacked as a sexist and racist. He made various attempts to defend himself against these charges, which were labeled just more evidence that he didn’t recognize his own shortcomings.

This is a fairly common occurrence these days, where someone makes a comment they think is a reasonable opinion, or even a private one in this case, and then is mercilessly attacked. I’ve commented before that the accuracy of the charges doesn’t really seem to be a question, only that it’s taken as an opportunity to attack, generally by the enforcers of a particular political agenda. I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to say who’s right in the Silverberg/Jemisin fuss. What I want to look at is the cultural conflict that’s playing out behind this kind of conversation.

Because cultural norms and expectations are permanently in the process of negotiation, researchers consider them to be a contested zone. Culture is something that moves and changes, sometimes very quickly and sometimes hardly at all. It can be based on specific locale, with different norms just a few miles down the road, or it can be based on group membership, when a person’s expectations about how other people should behave is defined by social groupings within their culture. This means that when Silverberg, a past award winner, complained about Jemisin’s speech at the Hugo Awards ceremony, it meant she hadn’t met his expectations about how an award winner ought to behave. In particular, he seemed to be complaining about the political content of her speech.

Presumably if Jemisin had said something supportive of the SFF community’s history and values, praised its elders, etc., everything would have been just fine. However, she apparently considers herself a political activist and uses her speaking opportunities to attack institutions for their shortcomings, rather than saying things that show her support of the group—in this case she accused the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minority aspirations, i.e. racism. This tactic is meant to be provocative, as Jemisin is calling attention to the fact that the community doesn’t meet her standards. Her comments did trigger a conversation of sorts, but basically a disruptive one that generated hard feelings all around.

Actually, the reception for Jemisin’s speech seemed to be fairly warm at the time, and folks like Silverberg who were offended remained polite about it. It was only later when he thought he was in a private venue that he revealed his offense. So, were her comments appropriate? There’s where the question of culture and the “contested zone” comes in. It’s been fairly common in recent years for award winners to take an opportunity for political statements. See the Academy Awards, for example. However, there is always a backlash. This tactic is a matter of trying to force cultural change, rather than encouraging it. Why not have a conversation about solidarity instead?


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.

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.

Is there too much diversity in SF&F?


55327_girl-writing_mdI want to digress from the branding and marketing discussion for a bit to actually consider Theodore Beale’s (aka Vox Day’s) complaints. For those not in the know, Beale heads an activist group called the “Rabid Puppies” inspired by Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen’s “Sad Puppies.” The platform for these groups is that the SF&F awards system has recently been co-opted by social justice warriors (aka SJW) who are engaged in a conspiracy to force diversity upon the SF&F readership. Correia, Torgersen and Beale insist that nobody really wants this diversity and that they, as right-leaning hard-liners, need to call attention to the conspiracy and counter with a traditional, white male ballot for the Hugo Awards.

So, is there really too much diversity on the ballot? This might not be a popular observation, but I can personally see a clear political agenda, at least in the US and Northern Europe, to increase acceptance of diversity. Everyone must have noticed this. Diversity is billed as a good thing, something we should respect that can bring in new ideas and new ways of doing things. It also implies acceptance of differences like gender, LGBTQ status, religion, disability, race, national origin, etc., etc., etc. But, the truth is that diversity makes us all nervous. Political scientist Robert Putnam, researching community trends in 2000, made the inconvenient discovery that greater diversity in a community leads to less trust, less volunteering, less cooperation, less voting and less civic engagement in general for average members of the community. As a liberal, Putnam was so disturbed by this finding that he waited until 2007 to publish the results, i.e. that diversity damages communities.

So, what can we gather from this? First, that there will be a backlash. Giving all the awards to the new kids on the block, especially those diverse kids, means that traditional, old-fashioned SF&F will get fewer awards. Second, some people will be offended that SF&F that got awards in 1953 is not getting awards now. Third, these people may complain.

Should we take them seriously? Answer: We should listen. They have a heart-felt complaint. There is still a place for vintage 1953 SF&F. However, the complainants need to accept that a significantly lower percentage of the SF&F readership will enjoy this type fiction. Diversity has invaded the fan base, and these more diverse individuals will look for stories that suit their taste. That means it’s impossible to put the diversity genie back in the bottle. It’s out, it’s loose and it’s creating change in the SF&F market. This will be reflected in the award nominations, as these tastes start to have their effect.

Get used to it, guys.

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