Jemisin vs. Silverberg: Defining Culture and Race

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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?

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More thoughts on the 2015 Nebula winners

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FeatherPenClipArtNow that the gender discussion is over, let’s have a look at the winning stories. For my taste, this year’s crop of winners was an improvement over the recent trends. Nothing really eye-rollingly sentimental won this year.

“Our Lady of the Open Road” runs a little that way, but actually it’s more of a nostalgia piece about people who are lagging behind social and technological change and really don’t want to cope with it. That’s reasonable social commentary, but I read a lot of other stories this year that I liked better. I’m not really surprised by Uprooted. I personally think it has structural flaws, but it’s hard-hitting, includes (sort-of) romance, and got a lot of early buzz as being outstanding. Hard science fiction lost out again this year. Of the four winners, Binti is the only science fiction piece, and it’s about cultural appropriation—a trending issue in the recent culture wars. “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is also a hard-hitting, unsentimental piece (at least until the end), running to dark fantasy/horror rather than the heart-strings direction the other short story contenders took.

I was disappointed that “The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer didn’t even make the list of finalists. It’s not hard SF, but this was the thought-piece of the year, projecting a reproduction issue into the future and then investigating how it would play out. I’m glad to see it’s on the list of finalists for the Sturgeon Award.

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.

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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