Virtue Signaling: Weaponizing the System


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?


Suppression of ideas at File 770

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I’ve just had an experience on File770 where a number of people came out very strongly in favor of suppression of ideas, and I’m feeling the need to write something about it. This shouldn’t reflect on the magazine, or on Mike Glyer, who provides an excellent venue. He’s not responsible for the views of his readers.

The initial question was whether David Riley, who had reportedly expressed racist views, should be allowed to serve on the HWA awards panel, but the discussion soon devolved into a fight about whether some ideas should be suppressed for moral reasons. For people of a certain age, this echoes an era when leftists were accused and persecuted as traitors with little or no evidence. It meant that you had to be really careful what you said or wrote, or you could end up “blacklisted” and unable to work, if not in prison. In response, I’d like to review Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Guy Montag is a “fireman” on a squad that burns books. These are sniffed out by electronic “hounds” operated by a totalitarian government. Where people have hidden books in their homes, the entire house is burned down. Montag is on assignment to burn a woman’s home. She is defiant and self immolates, burning up with her books. Wondering at her attitude, Montag steals a book. He returns home to his wife and finds that Clarisse, a young neighbor with free-ranging ideas, has disappeared.

Montag is disturbed and tries to discuss the woman’s death with his wife, but she gets angry, thinking his subversive ideas will cause him to lose his job. Mildred insists the woman was to blame for the whole thing because she was hiding books. At work the next day, Montag’s boss tells him that most firemen steal books from time to time, but that they need to be promptly destroyed. Over the next few months, Montag accumulates a stash of stolen books and comes to realize that he knows nothing about what the government is doing, as there are no newspapers and nothing on the media but entertainment. There are signs of a war looming—he sees formations of jets in the sky. One day a fire alarm comes in, and when the squad responds, Montag finds it is his house they are set to burn. His wife has turned him in.

Montag does his duty, burning the house, but then he turns the flamethrower on his boss, burning him up. Montag is attacked by a sniffer hound, but manages to escape. He flees into the countryside, looking for others who have fled, and finds a band led by a man named Granger. As they watch, the city is destroyed by a nuclear bomb, everyone burning up in the conflagration. Granger explains that history is full of repeated falls of civilization, and that it is their job to help rebuild.

The book was published in 1953. Groff Conklin, reviewing for Galaxy, called the novel “among the great works of the imagination.” P. Schuyler Miller, reviewing for Astounding Science Fiction, called it one of Bradbury’s “hysterical diatribes.” Bradbury had previously investigated these ideas in short stories and wrote the novel in 18 days on a rented typewriter. Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 is often found on banned book lists, and words like “abortion” or cursing are redacted when it is used in high school lit classes.

See the next blog for more oomments on the issue.

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