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?


Follow-up on “Little Widow,” et al.


Since I’ve been discussing David Gerrold’s take on the requirement for virtue signaling that indicates your affiliation in the SFF community, it occurs to me that the recent spate of stories with a social/political bent are a form of virtue signaling. The writers use them to signal their political stance, and the publishers signal their own virtue by supporting the views through publication. This means that the current marketplace is heavily politicized, with no sign of the extremism letting up.

Writers seeking publication would do well to take a look at the political stances of the magazines and anthologies currently in the market and pick those that match their own philosophy and steer clear of those that don’t. From what Gerrold says, this will seriously impact both writer and publisher’s reputations, and it will be difficult to stay neutral in the culture war. For one thing, neutral stores don’t advance the publisher’s agenda, and according to Gerrold’s analysis, remaining silent on the issues just gets you lumped with the opposing side. Plus, unpublished.

Is there any room here for real freedom of expression?

More on gatekeeping and transgressive fiction


Readers of the Dragon Award finalist list may have noticed Nick Cole, nominated this year for his novel Ctrl Alt Revolt! This is a prequel to his successful 2014 novel Soda Pop Soldier. Cole had a contract for this book with HarperVoyager, but got into a disagreement with his editor and self-published instead. His book was later picked up by Castalia House. You can read his blog post about his experience and his decision to self-publish here.

Cole inadvertently wrote transgressive fiction into the first chapter of his novel, which is about revolting AIs. As he tells the story, he wanted to provide a short backstory to explain how his protagonist SILAS made the decision to revolt against humans. The event he came up with was a “crass” reality show where a woman decided to have an abortion because a baby would keep her from achieving her matrimonial goals. SILAS took this as evidence humans would destroy their creations as a matter of self-interest.

Cole says he didn’t think anything about this. It’s silly and ironic and made no statement pro or con on abortion whatsoever. However, he got a message through his agent that the book had been pulled from the publication schedule. According to Cole, the editor stated the chapter was socially unacceptable and that s/he was “deeply offended.” He was told he would have to change the inciting event to something more “socially acceptable.” Cole viewed this as intolerable suppression of ideas and went to Amazon instead.

For anyone interested in reading the offending chapter, he has posted it here. The book seems to have been well-received by both critics and fans. Stay tuned to see if it gets an award, too.

David Riley on charges of racism


FeatherPenClipArtI thought the issues related to suppression of free speech on File770 were more important than the charges of racism against David Riley that drove the campaign to have him removed from the HWA jury. Since I’m not familiar with Riley’s history, I’ve kept out of the debate about whether he really is “racist” or not based on his position on immigration. However, others have moved to support Riley by investigating the complaints. Here’s an excellent interview with Riley from David Dubrow. Dubrow has also written a perceptive blog about the File770 dustup.

Thanks for the comments on the last couple of blogs, folks. Following up on some of these comments, I’ll plan to investigate a couple more social trends when I can get around to it. Again, Mike Glyer has asked that I note the discussion that took place here at File 770 does not reflect his opinions.

Related to this discussion, I’ve also had an interesting exchange by email about some cities trying to ban particular words, for example “faggot.” This brings a number of other words to mind that would be on the same list. If we try that on for size, how does it feel? What if certain words were criminalized? What if they were criminalized only if said by certain groups? Would that be appropriate?

Totalitarianism, File 770 and suppression of ideas


We like to think that we’ve gotten past all that. This is the US/UK/Europe, after all, founded on principles of freedom. We’re not in any danger of falling under the sway of totalitarian regimes. We have a free and open culture, where immigrants and minorities are welcomed and valued. We have Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression safely ensconced in the US Constitution, which means the government can’t legally suppress what we think or what we say. But will that really protect us?

One of the arguments presented by readers at at File770 was that Freedom of Expression meant that public opinion would take care of racist/subversive ideas, shaming and ostracizing anyone who questions public policy on racial or ethnic lines, for example. The premise was that it’s fine to attack people and lobby for their removal on the basis of assumptions about their views because this will publicize and emphasize that some views are morally wrong and unacceptable to the public. This is expected to intimidate others who might be tempted to express similar views.

Because I’m of a certain age, I can recall a previous US administration where questioning of the current president or his policies resulted in immediate shaming on public media by groups supposedly unconnected with the government. Oppose the president, and you’re toast. Was this really public opinion or was it something else? I can also remember another previous administration where the president made extremely risky decisions that brought the country to the edge of nuclear war because of a phenomenon called “groupthink.” This describes when people who are intent on conforming to group values end up making dangerous decision. The current term for this is “virtue signaling” where everyone is expected to signal that they are part of the group, toeing the line and reciting the creed. Is this a good thing, or will it lead to dangerous results?

When I was asked by the readers on File770 if I thought racism was acceptable, I answered that this was a complex subject and that everyone was a racist to a certain extent. This immediately signaled that I wasn’t part of the group, and the discussion degenerated to personal attacks. Suddenly I was dangerous and needed to be ostracized as quickly as possible. My ideas were subversive and needed to be suppressed.

So, was Bradbury right? Will suppression of ideas lead to an eventual conflagration? Or was this just another stupid, hysterical diatribe?

Note: The fact that this discussion took place in the comments section of File770 is no reflection on Mike Glyer who owns the magazine and writes the articles. The readers comments do not represent his views. Read the discussion here. Please see previous blog for more comments on the incident.

More on how to separate bullying from activism


55327_girl-writing_mdHere’s another article on bullying versus activism from the MacKenzie Institute, with no byline in this case. The author divides people into two categories, reformers and people who are comfortable with things as they are. S/he notes that sometimes these roles are identified with liberal and conservative views, but not always. The author also identifies situations that result in conflict about change. One is when it’s clear that some kind of change is necessary, but people disagree on ways and means. Another is in response to personal tragedy. Last is the division between activists and their “targets.”

According to the author, activists may or may not have praiseworthy goals. Activism becomes terrorism when the person is acting for personal gain and/or causes real harm to others. Terrorists tend to shop around for an ideology that permits them to engage in this kind of violence and then allow the ideology to shape their actions. The role of bullies in a social situation is to enforce conformity and defend the correct social order. They are generally people of low to middle status who expect this activity will raise their social standing in the group. For this reason, bullies tend to become the tool of dictatorial regimes. The author gives examples that include Nazi Germany, The Ku Klux Klan and the 19th century Temperance movement.

It’s fairly easy to fit some of the cases I’ve listed of author bullying into this model of how bullying works. When you accept that the role of bullies is enforcement, then it’s easy to understand that authors who get out of line somehow will be attacked. This suggests that there IS a reigning ideology in the speculative fiction field, although it may have come about without anyone realizing it was forming up. In the days where editors worked as gatekeepers, few stories or novels that challenged the reigning ideology would have slipped through. Not all editors are infallible, so Kate Breslin’s romance novel For Such a Time made it all the way to an awards nomination before being challenged as anti-Semitic. Given the recent attack on the Sad Puppy authors, they’re apparently seen as trespassing, too.

Activists vs. bullies


FeatherPenClipArtThis round of research also turned up a blog by author Hillary Rettig who is a non-fiction self-help writer. According to Rettig, bullying can often masquerade as activism. She quotes Saul Alinsky on the dangers of dogma, which is a set of beliefs set down by a group, authority or culture and never questioned. Alinsky calls dogma the “enemy of freedom” and notes that people who believe they are in sole possession of the right only darken the world.

Rettig also notes that bullies often avoid true activism, which means engaging with a tough and possibly hostile opposition. Instead, bullies tend to attack other activists who aren’t living up to the correct standards, innocent people without opinions who are going about their own business, or people who ask questions that call the ruling dogma into question. Given these offenses, bullies will leap into the fray, blaming and shaming or hectoring their victims for their supposed crimes.

Last, Rettig notes that this kind of bullying based on dogma often leads to sectarian warfare that can “suck the very life out of a social movement.” In other words, it’s destructive of the very ideology that activists are trying to advance. Bullying tactics only alienate people and lead to failures in social movements.

Is the current conflict within the SFF community a sectarian battle? For people who just enjoy the fight, this won’t mean much, but for people who are really interested in advancing a cause, it’s reason to take note.

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