Virtue Signaling: Weaponizing the System

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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?

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More on Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking

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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?

Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking

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On September 9, David Gerrold posted an interesting essay at the Amazing Stories website. Yeah, I know that was two months ago, but I running a little behind on my reading. What makes this interesting is that I can’t make out if it’s a warning, a complaint or an apology.

Gerrold’s title is “Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” He starts off saying that the universe is a place of constant change and that SF is a way to investigate that. “This literature is the laboratory in which we consider the universe and our place in it,” he says. “It is the place where we ask, ‘Who are we and what is our purpose here? What does it mean to be a human being?’”

Because he’s talking about SF, I expected this would be about technology and how this impacts the human condition, but instead, he’s aiming at social issues and how it’s inevitable these concerns will be reflected in SF publishing. Then he gets to what’s really bothering him, which is the current traditional vs. progressive split in the SFF community. He calls out some people who have said things that were “ill-considered,” (apparently aiming at just the traditionalist side). He then moves into a parable about “throwing shit,” and what you should do if you’re standing next to a person who’s doing this. His answer is that you need to speak up about it because your reputation in the community is at stake. What he’s talking about is virtue signaling, where you separate yourself from the other side through criticisms, attacks and “me, too” statements that are socially prescribed.

This is now a requirement in the SFF community? That’s what he’s saying, right? So, what does he mean by this?

First possibility: A warning.
Does Gerrold mean that you’re in danger of being black-listed as an author if you don’t take sides? If you don’t clearly indicate your support for the current progressive direction of mainstream SF publishing? In this case, you don’t have to think about issues at all, you just announce your support and you’ll be fine.

Second possibility: A complaint.
Does Gerrold not like being forced to fight this battle? You have to remember that he’s been in the thick of the conflict, He was SWATted in 2015 by Lou Antonelli in response to the conflict about the Hugo Awards. Is he tired of being the figure-head for the progressive movement that crashes into things and takes all the damage?

Third possibility: An apology.
Is this explanation Gerrold’s apology to the traditionalists? Does it indicate that he feels forced into supporting the progressive movement and therefore has no choice other than to attack a lot of people who were probably his friends before this all got started?

In the current climate, I think all these possibilities are disturbing. It all comes back to that first possibility, where you’re required to say certain things and attack certain people because of social coercion. Where you don’t get to think first, or consider the issues, or look at arguments from the other side at all. Instead, you say the right things in support of the right people and you’re fine.

This is pretty much the definition of “groupthink.” According to Wikipedia, this is “a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.” In other words, the desire for conformity displaces independent thinking and criticism. Note the part about the dysfunctional outcome.

More on this later.

Award Winners that Don’t Hold Up over Time

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In her 2014 article on literary awards, Barbara Cohen notes: “Cultural prizes notoriously reward the wrong works for the wrong reasons: On the long list of worthies deprived of the Nobel for literature are Tolstoy, Proust, and Joyce.” I’ve been discussing influences on the awards over the last few blogs, and of course these issues are likely to result in some winners that don’t hold up over time.

Checking around, I found The Hugo Award Book Club (HABC), which has a page discussing the issue of poor choices. The group awards the “Worst Hugo Award” title to 1973, when Isaac Asimov won his first Hugo for a novel with The Gods Themselves. Here was the lineup of finalists that year. As was standard in those times, there were no concerns about diversity, so the finalists are all white men.

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov [Galaxy Mar/Apr,May/Jun 1972; If Mar/Apr 1972]
When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold [Ballantine, 1972]
There Will Be Time by Poul Anderson [Signet, 1972]
The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg [Scribner’s, 1972]
Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg [Galaxy Jul/Aug,Sep/Oct 1972; Scribner’s, 1972]
A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak [Putnam, 1972]

The HABC briefly reviews all these works, along with some other worthy contenders that year. Asimov’s winner was a three-part series published in Galaxy Magazine where aliens in a different dimension steal energy from ours, causing the sun to go nova. The HABC notes that the physics is interesting, but that the end result was dull and boring and the book has not aged well in comparison to the other contenders that year. In the comments Steve Davidson mentions that the work was recognized at the time for its risks with sexual content, but that isn’t anything exceptional these days, so the novel’s shortcomings are what stand out.

So what affected the WorldCon membership that year to make this choice? Asimov’s reputation as a short story writer? Frederik Pohl’s reputation as the editor of Galaxy? The ascendancy of hard SF? Promotion? Some kind of groupthink issue? Whatever it was, the vision affected the Nebula and Locus voters, too. The novel also won the Nebula in 1972 and the Locus Award in 1973.

Getting back to the present time, which of recent choices in the awards will hold up best over time? It’s an interesting question, eh?

Totalitarianism, File 770 and suppression of ideas

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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.

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