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?

A “mean girls” culture in spec fiction?

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FeatherPenClipArtAfter contemplation, there were a couple of things that fell out of this recent foray into the wilds of the Internet. Contemplation always solidifies what was uncomfortable about what you saw, right? In this case one of the uncomfortable issues was that the search for author bullying cases brought up mostly women.

There are some well-known differences in the way men and women operate. This is something that’s generally quoted as an advantage in hiring women for management positions. Specifically, women tend to seek cooperative decision-making while men tend to set up a hierarchy of authority. Because of these structures, men have a mentoring structure, while women don’t. This can result in actions within a group of women to take down members who want to achieve more than the average. It’s complex, but it often results in the “mean girls” culture outlined by the film of the same name. This culture takes down upstarts who don’t know their place and enforces mediocrity.

Over the years, women writers have struggled for achievement and equal representation in the speculative fiction genres. SF writers especially are fighting for recognition in a male-dominated field. The early pioneers like Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree knew they’d get recognition faster with male pseudonyms. Taking a male pen name not only obscured the female Tiptree’s identity, but also gave her access to the mentoring system men use. It’s no surprise that the worst harassment abuses I came up with were in the female erotica/romance genres where male participation is lowest.

In responses to the bullying and harassment issues, I notice calls for a stronger community of women writers. I’d certainly vote for this. Budding African American writers like Fionna Free Man need mentoring and support from the community of women writers, not a career-destroying take down from an established, best-selling writer like Jenny Trout.

Who would take the lead in something like this? Maybe an SFWA committee?

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.

Examples of Internet Censorship/Bullying: Jenny Trout vs. Fionna Man

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Edward LearSince I’m on the subject of Internet bullying of authors, I should review a few examples of how this works. First example, Jenny Trout and Fionna Free Man.

Fionna Free Man is a writer of fantasy erotica who has published a number of books based on historical characters. One of these is Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress, about Jefferson and his black slave mistress Sally Hemings. The characters in the book are vampires and werewolves, which means it’s clearly not related to reality in any way.

Jenny Trout is a writer of fantasy romance and, without reading the book, apparently took offense at the idea behind using Jefferson and his mistress as subjects of erotica. She launched a campaign against the book, encouraging her fans to pirate the novel and to demand it be taken off bookshelves and out of Internet listings because of depictions of rape and racism. The campaign was successful, and Man’s book was removed. However, it turns out that Fionna Free Man is an activist woman of color; there is no mention of rape in the book, and actual readers report no indications of racism—just vampires and werewolves. Trout and her faction also engaged with other authors who tried to defend Man, including Kevin Weinberg and Ann Rice. After a backlash, Trout was dropped by her publisher.

Note: This should not be taken as support for child rape or racism on my part. I just support Man’s right to freedom of expression.

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