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?

Wrap of the bullying blogs

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55327_girl-writing_mdThis pretty much concludes the series on bullying, at least until something else on it catches my eye. I’ve done what Kristin Lamb recommends, which is to speak up about bullying. I tend to have liberal and progressive views, but I also try to be a critical thinker. In this set of blogs, I’ve tried to offer a rational analysis of what’s going on in the social arena based on fairly diligent research, and to present the conclusions for anyone who’s interested in reading.

I have gotten some comments, both publicly and privately, but not really the kind of discussion I think we in the SFF community could be having about such concerns. I’ve identified some issues and trends that I think are important. Because of the current conflicts in the community, I’d like to encourage a broader conversation on these issues.

Also, I’d like to mention that I don’t mean to bully or harass the people who appear in these essays as examples. They are entitled to the closely held opinions and beliefs they hold as part of their background, and they have posted their comments about these viewpoints online for use in a cultural dialog.

Reviewing David Levithan’s Every Day

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FeatherPenClipArtI read a book last week that I just have to mention here. It’s Every Day by David Levithan. It’s young adult, but I already mentioned that I love reading young adult novels.

In this story, a protagonist who calls him/herself “A” wakes up every day in the body of a different person. This makes him/her completely unattached to gender, race, body type, sexuality or any other characteristic we take for granted as part of our identity. A is used to moving from person to person without developing any long-term ties, but at the beginning of the book s/he falls in love with someone else’s girlfriend (Rhiannon) and decides to make the effort. Through various shifts, the two of them manage to put together a relationship, but it’s hard going. A makes a mistake that leaves stories of demonic possession flying, and then s/he has a brush with someone really scary. The ending is sweet, but it leaves so many issues hanging that this REALLY, REALLY needs a sequel.

Levithan has also released a set of outtakes from A’s life called Six Earlier Days and has Another Day, a “companion novel” written from Rhiannon’s point of view, coming out in August 2015. Hopefully this is just to help him think through a real sequel to the original novel, which needs to be a thriller. The scary, tenuous, unprotected nature of A’s existence just screams about threats.

It’s clear what Levithan meant to do with Every Day. Our consciousness is often shaped by the body we wear, whether black, white, male, female, gay, straight, big, small. It’s also shaped by family life and how others treat us. What if we could be completely free of all that? A also passes through the lives of people suffering from drug/alcohol addiction, child abuse, cutting and severe depression. What can we do to help these people? And finally, what are the ramifications of power over others? Is A’s moral code important?

Levithan has been criticized for skimming over the social issues in favor of the love story, and the fact that A admits to awkwardness and helplessness in the bodies of some of the people s/he inhabits. I agree that some of the issues might have been explored further, but A’s existence means we only get a single day’s snapshot. Should s/he try to get more involved? Is a policy of non-interference the best way to go?

The important thing is how we manage to identify with a person this strange, and how we understand his/her need for real love.

Five stars. Highly recommended.

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