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?

Common threads in these examples?


55327_girl-writing_mdFor one thing, I notice all these authors are women. Presumably there are also male authors who are bullied, but the prominence of these results in a search for bullied authors suggests that women are more likely to be targeted than men. It’s interesting to speculate on why. Are women viewed as fair game for some reason while men are not? Do women tend to present more daring or challenging ideas? Do they have a really bad understanding of political correctness? Do they have naive assumptions about their right to freedom of expression?

In two of the cases above, the harassment was instigated mainly by another woman who was offended by either the basic idea or the presentation of ideas in the novels. Why is this? Do women see themselves as having a responsibility to police and punish offensive ideas moreso than men? Do they act as SJWs more often?

In one case conservative author Vox Day entered the fray on the side of Kate Breslin. Does this mean there is a political or ideological battle going on? An attempt to censor or bury particular ideas that don’t meet with popular support? Are all novels now required to meet standards of progressive correctness in the marketplace?

One issue pointed out in the battle over Save the Pearls was that Foyt’s ideas weren’t that radical, but that her presentation was heavy-handed and inept. The same might be said of Man’s book, which took characters from history that carried baggage along–apparently just mention of Sally Hemings carries unacceptable implications about statutory rape and racism. Presumably a different treatment where Jefferson’s role as rapist and racist was prominent would have been completely acceptable. This suggests that one of the problems here is the reduced role of traditional publishers and editors in presenting these books for sale. Experienced publishers and editors, like those at Weird Tales for example, are more savvy about what’s acceptable to the public and what’s not. They would most likely nix offensive ideas before they got out there to cause trouble.

I’m not going to speculate about what happened to Harris. I think her fans need to get a life.

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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