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?

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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.

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