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?


When does activism become bullying?

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“Speak up” is something we hear a lot in reference to making positive changes in our community. This is something activists are expected to do. After all, if nobody knows there’s a problem, then they won’t do anything to remedy it, right? In the previous blog, Lamb’s last recommendation was that we speak up about bullying, for example. This is meant to raise the profile of the issue and influence sites like Amazon and Goodreads to institute policies that make bullying more difficult. People also feel they have to speak up when they think they see things like racism, sexism or homophobia. But, is all this speaking up a good thing? When does it cross the line into something else?

For example, I’m sure Jenny Trout thought she was working against racism and child rape when she attacked Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Clearly she thought she was using her position as a best-selling author for a good cause when she directed her fans to harass Man’s booksellers into withdrawing the book from circulation. However, this act turned out to look like terrorism instead, because Trout hadn’t researched the book and its author well enough to realize what she was really doing.

In another example, N.K. Jemison made a very activist speech at Continuum 2013 in Australia that discussed racism, sexism and homophobia in the SFF community, as well as past abuses. In the text of the speech she’s posted, she doesn’t mention Vox Day’s name, but she does complain that he is “misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole.” Then she suggests that the 10% of SFWA members who voted for Day are “busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges, 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.” She then complains about the silent majority of enablers who don’t come out to oppose this.

How should this to be taken by members of the SFWA? Is it a call to action, or an attempt at bullying?

The dangers of Internet activism

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WarriorAnother element that sticks out in the episodes of Internet bullying/censorship I’ve reviewed here is the backlash. Because Internet activists have a tendency to go off half-cocked and to be over-zealous, they sometimes make mistakes about what the public actually thinks about something. Their goal is to sway public opinion with a media campaign, of course, but not everyone falls for this. There are actually a lot of critical thinkers out there. These include people like Ann Rice who are concerned about the social implications, plus the experts who are now labeling this trend as fascism.

There are advantages to having a prominent role as an activist. Your name gets repeated a lot in blogs and articles, which raises your profile as an author (or whatever). As I mentioned some months back, some people feel there is no such thing as negative publicity. This means they will pursue notoriety regardless of consequence. However, some of these activists have run afoul of public opinion and suffered for it. Jenny Trout was dropped by her publisher after the Fionna Man episode. Ann Rice, Kevin Weinberg and Marvin Kaye suffered from their efforts to counter some of these attacks. Sarah Wendell received a lot of negative attention after Vox Day featured her comments on his conservative blog. And Day is a prime example himself. Everyone in the SFF community should know his name after last year’s Hugo debacle, but most of the press is so negative that it leads people to discount his viewpoints.

This suggests that activism should be used cautiously as a way to advance ideas and/or to market yourself. It should also be used intelligently to further viewpoints. Attacking people like Fionna Man doesn’t help the progressive cause.

Dangerous Ideas


55327_girl-writing_mdFollowing up on the analysis of bullied authors, what was it that triggered the attacks on Man, Breslin and Foyt? Are some ideas dangerous? More specifically, are there some ideas that we do need to suppress? Some that are too perilous to allow out there, even in fiction? Ann Rice calls this transgressive fiction.

I have to think this is the issue with the attacks on these books. There are certain views that have been established by political pressure groups that are carefully defended. For example, the views challenged in these novels are: 1) Thomas Jefferson as a racist and child rapist, 2) Nazis as irredeemable monsters and 3) current views of what constitutes racism in literary expression. Once these views are established, then they have to be maintained, so proponents watch like a hawk for any slippage of the ideology. Any infringement offers a new opportunity to drive the point home. Blackface is a prime example, as large segments of the public persist in failing to understand the racist significance of wearing makeup that’s darker than your skin. Angelina Jolie was vilified in 2006 for her appearance in the film A Mighty Heart, for example. The trailer for Save the Pearls showing the character in blackface was one of the prime motivations for labeling Foyt’s book racist.

Ideas are curious things. I’ve been discussing the importance of ideas in hard SF—that someone has to predict the future in order for us to build it. If you look really hard at it, reality is something humans construct for ourselves. On a basic level, we understand that it’s a fragile construct. This means we will always defend against ideas that challenge our vision of reality. The question is whether we can make reality fit our specifications.

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