On Ostracism

In my last post, I talked about the current woes over the Hugo awards, but all the while I was writing it, I felt like there was a major point that I was missing out. That point was larger than SF fandom, and instead said something about the difference between the country I was born in (UK) and the one I live in now (US), so I left it aside.

Then, after I made the post, a commenter (AG) made the following remark:

I would also add that nobody doubts the benefits of diversity (at least nobody seems to in the sad puppies’ camp). We only differ in thinking that ideological diversity is good too.

I find AG’s comment, while apparently heartfelt, something of a stretch. (BTW, thank you for your input, AG.) While I trust that AG speaks fairly of his own opinion, some members of the Sad Puppy camp have been extremely vocal in their criticism of ways of life different from their own. That criticism does not always appear to have been designed to encourage dialog.

But my point here is not to indulge my own opinions (which lean left), or to add to the already impressive mass of Hugo-related rhetoric. Rather I was inspired by AG’s comment to address that missing critical point.

I wanted to ask the following question: what has happened to American public discourse, and can we fix it?

Science fiction fandom in the US has become tribal, as have many elements of American life. People have grown angry. One side feels impatient for change that it sees as long overdue. The other side perceives a wave of political militancy, and thinks it sees overtures of thought control because its opinions are not garnering equal respect.

This much is obvious, but why we are all so angry now? Why did this shift not happen thirty years ago?

My proposed explanation stems from the following observation: the US is a large country which, for most of its history, has been relatively empty. Furthermore, it has a lot of different kinds of people in it, and always has. For this, and a host of other reasons, the dominant mechanism for implementing politeness in the US has been what an evolutionary biologist might call ostracism. In other words, if someone says something that you can’t get along with or that strikes you as crazy, you give them room and try to ignore them. If necessary, you actively shun them. 

In Britain, by contrast, if someone you know says something crazy, society permits you, within reason, to tease them or call them out on it. Choosing to remark on someone else’s crazy is often perceived as a point of strength. Or, at least, this was still true when I moved.

Brits, and other Europeans, look at the US and struggle to understand a society that is seemingly first world, and yet supports populations of Amish on one end and holistic pet bathing enthusiasts on the other. They make television shows about it and wonder how come Americans appear to be insane.

But US culture is structured the way that it is, I’d propose, because leaving people room was always the more efficient solution given the conditions. With different ethnic groups arriving from all over the planet for the last two hundred years, simple, robust solutions to a variety of social problems have been a part of life. The US is not a European-style, self-norming, cohesive culture. It is a hyper-inclusive monoculture underpinned by a huge number of microcultures, some of which are extremely exclusive in nature.

Thus far, the US has succeeded with this model. However, the country is now presented with a problem. That mechanism of shunning or rejecting those who we cannot get along with has broken. Even without a rising population, increased urban density, and rapid transport, the internet makes it impossible. In effect, everyone is suddenly trapped in the same room. Shunning people doesn’t increase the social distance any more. It just makes people upset and more prone to aggression. And so a long stable nation has now polarized wildly, like oil and water desperately trying to escape each other while trapped in the same cup.

I find this worrying because the ostracism-first approach to social moderation is deeply baked into American thinking. The assumption that if you encounter someone who you consider intolerable, that you should exclude them, and ensure that your peers do likewise, is for many an almost instinctive response. It feels morally right. It feels just. When others fail to participate in the process, it can feel like a betrayal. It is not perceived as a cultural choice. It is just the thing that you need to do.

But there are two ironies here. The first is that what right-leaning SF fans parse as socialist thought control is, in truth, a profoundly American social behavior. The second is that left-leaning fans, in seeking to advance a social good, unwittingly resort to a traditional behavior historically more associated with conservatives. Funny, perhaps, but nobody is laughing yet.

Is there a solution? I am biassed, of course, but I would propose that the US borrow one from Britain: derision. By which I mean satire, mockery, teasing and all other forms of social reconciliation through mirth. It is not a surprise that social institutions like the Daily Show have become so valued in American society of late. They are badly needed and in short supply.

I believe that both sides in the Hugos debate, and in American society at large, need to set down their sense of outraged affront as rapidly as possible and start mocking each other instead. Mocking and accepting mockery in return. And if we find ourselves able to laugh at our own side from time to time, then we know that the healing has started. And after healing comes the potential for real, cohesive social change.

To my mind, the sooner we can achieve this, the better off we will all be, regardless of which social agenda dominates in the current debacle. Because, inevitably there will be another debacle that follows. Next time, it may be left versus left, or right versus right, and self-righteous shunning will be just as counterproductive as ever.

Similarly, in Britain, I think I see a growing trend toward the American cultural solution, perhaps because the distance between the US and UK is shrinking too. And this can’t work either. A Britain that abandons wry observation in favor of self-righteousness is likely to be a dangerous, unhappy place to live. It is too small to be otherwise, and righteous exclusion does not make anyone friends.

In short: the internet is not going away any time soon. We had better get used to it and adjust our social expectations accordingly.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz in July of this year.)

(My link in the above post is to a letter written by John C. Wright. For those seeking to understand whether, and in what specific sense, the letter may constitute resistance to ideological diversity, I strongly encourage reading the attached comments on this post. The discussion with John Wright included there makes his reasons for writing it clear.)

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How to Fix the Hugos

I have spent way too much time this last week reading the various back and forth articles about the Hugo award debacle. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this, the short version is as follows.

Two groups, one of right-leaning fans (the Sad Puppies), and another of far-right fans (the Rabid Puppies), both felt that they were being marginalized in the Hugo award ballots. They gamed the voting system, which was entirely unprotected against gaming, and made sure their own candidates dominated this year’s ballot. The left-leaning press then jumped on this act, mischaracterized what had just happened by conflating the two groups and their members, and handed a small victory to the right-leaning fans. The right-leaning press then leapt in after with equally poorly researched accusations of a liberal conspiracy.

Subsequently, everyone and his aunt has jumped into the debate to express an opinion, including George R. R. Martin, who wrote a sequence of eloquent posts which, in my opinion, calmly and clearly exposed the latent reality distortion in the X Puppies positions, (where X denotes some form of disease or misery).

The X Puppies main point appears to be this: “These days, the Hugos seem to be full of dull works full of left-leaning politics. Why can’t the Hugos just be about good old space adventures without politics, like they used to be?”

The reply from GRR Martin and others is roughly this: “To my knowledge, they were never about good old space adventures without politics. Please point at a moment in history when this was true.”

The comeback from the X Puppies to me smacks of angry avoidance. Here is a quote from Larry Correia:

In your Where’s the Beef post you attempted to dismiss our allegations that there is a political bias in the awards now, by going through the history of the awards and looking at the political diversity of winners from long ago. Nice, but we are talking about a relatively recent trend.

In other words: in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s this award was not about politics-free space adventures. However, what concerns us is the recent trend toward it not being so.

I find this debacle both sad and fascinating. It’s sad, because the Hugos are broken now. It’s unclear if they will ever be quite the same. Something I put value in throughout my childhood has been soiled.

However, it’s also fascinating to me, because the whole thing is an extraordinary example of group psychology in action. I believe that if fandom views this unpleasant experience through the right lens, it can make itself stronger, wiser, and more diverse than ever before.

My source of inspiration in this matter is an excellent post by Django Wexler, focusing not on the awards themselves, but the attendant voting system, and how it might be repaired to discourage future weaponization.

His post encouraged me to think that instead of mourning the Hugos, perhaps we should accept their current brokenness and start playing with them. And to that end, I have a variety of suggestions, some more serious than others.

Suggestion One: Award a happy, hollow victory

One solution would be for everyone to vote for Vox Day (the leader of the far-right group) and any author who supports him in every single category. Then when they go up to collect the award each time, we laugh. We cheer and whistle. We thank them effusively for rescuing us from a nightmare of inclusiveness and equality. We give them loads of long, uncomfortable, sweaty hugs.

This, to my mind, would the the improvisors yes-and-based solution. A spoiler can only feel victory so long as it is not pressed gleefully into his hands.

Suggestion Two: Create a new category

Maybe the Hugo award organizers should create a special award category for ‘old timey space adventures with no politics, honest’ to commemorate this event. We might call this the Iron Dream award, or some such thing. Then the right-leaning fans can vote for that award instead and feel like their peculiar historic fantasy is being maintained. If other fans felt the urge to vote for the most blatantly, creakingly right-leaning fiction they could find, one could hardly blame them. A match between the Iron Dream award and Best Novel might serve as an in indicator that the voting had been something other than straightforward.

Suggestion Three: Pattern voting

Django Wexler proposed anti-votes to compensate for slate voting. What’s nice about this system is that slate voting is at a disadvantage, rather than an advantage. The issue, as has been subsequently pointed out, is that anti-votes carry a social connotation that is perhaps at odds with the Hugos and likely to lead to more argument.

So instead, I’d propose a system in which each pattern of votes counts once. Identical vote sheets end up constituting a single vote. This means that anyone who wants to force a slate through has to put in work. The more power they want to have, the larger the set of works they vote for has to become.

Is such a system gameable? Of course it is. Ken Arrow has made that clear. However, it is positive in social implications, provides an incentive for people to read broadly, and disincentivizes slates. I invite criticism to this idea, as I’d love to know where the flaws are. I’m sure they’re in there somewhere.

Suggestion four: A Hugos mission statement

If we’re being straight about this, we can admit that the X Puppies did what they did because of what they perceived as the truth, and what they perceived as injustice. That perception was, to my eye, a skewed one, but it existed for a reason.

That reason is that the people in that group felt demonized. Everyone wants to see themselves as a good guy on the side of truth and justice, so when they started to encounter a social consensus that characterized them as bad guys, they went into amygdala hijack and lashed out.

People take action in the way that the X Puppies did when their brains register that some pathway to self-validation has been compromised. Then they did what people always do under these conditions, which was to construct a goal chain with the shortest discernible path leading to a state where they could continue to self-validate safely.

Their solution was to ensure that the Hugos were unambiguously political, so that they could believe this without interior conflict, and propose that this was why they were not getting awards. So far as the X Puppies brains are concerned, job done. All else is just the post-justification that conscious reasoning affords. Now that we are all angry, nobody has to feel unworthy. We can talk about libel and conspiracies and groupthink instead.

There seem to me to be two takeaways from this. First, it’s clear that some left-leaning fans are guilty of cheap, self-serving reasoning, just as the X Puppies are. Some of the flawed journalism that occurred during this event provides clear examples of why we should always hesitate in judgement, even if only to be accurate in our critique.

To my mind, robust liberal thought is synonymous with scientific thought. We should always consider whether there’s some position we haven’t considered, just as we should always wonder if our understanding of diversity, or privilege, or justice requires modification. This is true even when considering those whose positions we find profoundly distasteful. The alternative is defensive knee-jerk reasoning, which is either bigotry, or bigotry in disguise, no matter what political credentials are trumpeted. Outrage, regardless of its target, is the enemy of reason.

Thus, perhaps we should use this as an opportunity to think more deeply than ever about diversity and how we can communicate its benefits more effectively. If the X Puppies hadn’t found themselves auto-included in groups labeled as ‘bad’ during conversations in the community, they might not have lost the plot. Even if we consider the social positions of the X Puppies to be socially untenable, how can we consider the current outcome a win? Could those people who are now defensive and angry have been more persuasively and proactively brought around?

More simply, we might also consider simply attaching a mission statement to the Hugos that makes it very clear what they stand for. Then those who can’t get behind the mission statement can feel free to disregard the awards at their leisure. The more clear we are about what we stand for, the easier it will be for those who don’t want to play to turn their noses up at us and stalk off. Good luck to them.

So, given the options, which solution do you prefer? Do you have an alternative proposal? If so, I’d be delighted to hear about it.

(My first book, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz in July.)