More on Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking


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?


Individualism vs. social inclusion

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I’ve already fussed about the trend I mentioned again in the last blog, the message that virtue and good deeds will ensure you are warmly accepted into the social community, regardless of who or what you are. This seems to be the trendy social message. I’ve characterized it as part of a movement to over-protection of children, but now I’ve been looking for the origins of the message. I think it comes from anti-bullying programs.

The United States has always been known for its philosophy of Individualism. This is defined as being independent and self-reliant, and also as a social theory that favors freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control. Anyone who’s uncertain of what this means can find it in novels by Ayn Rand. Specifically, this means that individuals should form their own opinions and take responsibility for their own actions without being dependent on others. It also means that strong individuals don’t allow themselves to be peer-pressured into things they don’t want to do.

The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP) was developed in the early 1980s by Norwegian professor Dan Olweus. It was first implemented in Norway, but soon crossed the Atlantic and took root in the USA. Bullying has changed over the years. In 1980, most bullying took place face-to-face, through either physical or emotional mistreatment. With the advent of social media, however bullying has disappeared from adult view. Sometimes the first parents hear of it is when their child tries to commit suicide. To counter this, efforts at bullying prevention have increased. The OBPP and similar programs have a number of components, some of which include immediate adult intervention when bullying is discovered, presentation of positive adult role models and a strong effort to include all children in a supportive social community.

So, we have opposing philosophies here. The supportive social community that suppresses aggression suggests collective control. Lots of kids don’t fit in. However, if you are this kind of kid, you have to learn to own it. Difference is the source of critical thinking, and learning to deal with this is one of the hallmarks of say, the successful scientists and engineers of the future.

I can see the point of the virtue + good deeds = acceptance message, but I just don’t think it’s going to work out for a lot of kids. No amount of virtue + good deeds is going to take the tragedy and conflicts out of life. I suspect kids who still can’t make it are going to be dangerous.

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