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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23 thoughts on “On Ostracism”

  1. “some members of the Sad Puppy camp have been extremely vocal in their criticism of ways of life different from their own. ”

    And some have been extremely vocal in their criticism of two particular writers who particularly offended in a specific way, namely, slipping their antinominan and antichristian propaganda into a children’s cartoon.

    Those writers made no remark at all about the other ways of life, and yet, to illiterates who cannot read a sentence written in plain English, those writers are allowed to enjoy the public spectacle of having their words quoted as evidence of certain propositions (including the proposition given here that “some members of the Sad Puppy camp have been extremely vocal in their criticism of ways of life different from their own.”) when the word themselves do not bear that interpretation.

    What is the point of repeating a falsehood you yourself know or should know to be false? Why provide a link to any reader who can click through the link and read, and see that what you are saying is false?

    The behavior does not seem rational.

    1. Hi John,
      First, I should say that you’ve written some terrific books. I am a huge fan of the Golden Age trilogy. And I should explain my choice of your letter in my post. First, I had recently encountered it, while looking at the content on your blog. As a former atheist who now espouses a fiercely Catholic position, I find your example interesting, and worthy of examination.

      My understanding of your letter was that it particularly related to the appearance of gay relationships in the cartoon which you took issue with. (If I am misinformed on this account, please just let me know.) I selected your piece as an example because you appeared to parse the presence of a gay relationship as anti-Christian propaganda. It was my understanding that this was what prompted you to write.

      Did I pay insufficiently close attention? If it was not the relationship itself, but some more specific attendant remark made by the cartoon’s producers which frustrated you, then perhaps clarifying your position will help others understand it.

      If it is indeed the case that you consider a gay relationship in a children’s cartoon as propaganda, then I believe that my example holds. Gay relationships exist. Some of those gay couples have children who watch cartoons. Why should the presence of a gay relationship constitute propaganda any more than one, say, between a Catholic and a Protestant? (A thorny issue, I believe, in 17th century England.) The vocal condemnation of someone culturally accepting of homosexuality surely constitutes a form of social norming at odds with the idea of ideological diversity.

      However, if I need to select a different example from the statements made by the Sad Puppies group, I will endeavor to do so. In the mean time, I’d be of course interested in your take on my article’s main point, if you’re interested in addressing it.

      1. An interesting question, but one which is irrelevant to this issue under discussion.

        You use my letter to the men pushing antichristian and antinomian propaganda on my children as an example of someone disapproving of gay lifestyles rather than someone disapproving of deception and betrayal.

        There is no such letter from my pen condemning the writers of Doctor Who nor Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who also peppered their shows with attempts to normalize the sexual abnormality we are discussing.

        But those shows were honest in their intent, upfront, and not aimed at small children.

        Again, your effort to rewrite what I wrote to make it fit your message is dishonest. I do not understand who you mean to deceive. Surely not yourself, since it is deliberate. Not me, I know better. Anyone reading your words can click through the link and read mine and see you are misinterpreting them rather transparently.

      2. Hey again, John.
        Actually, no deceit is intended here. I’m not that kind of guy. I really did just pick your letter because I had your site open in another window, and it seemed apropos. I really think I may be missing something here, given your response.

        Let me make sure I understand. If I’m reading you right this time, your point here is that you felt that the relationship on Korra was duplicitous because, A: you found the reveal unexpected, and B: the audience was small children. Do I have that right?

        My guess is that you’ve been wading through a lot of angry email of late, and my intention is not to antagonize you further. I would much rather facilitate an inclusive discussion.

      3. “A: you found the reveal unexpected, and B: the audience was small children. Do I have that right?”

        Exactly right! You have restored my faith in you, sir.

        “My guess is that you’ve been wading through a lot of angry email of late…”

        You guess correctly, much email, and very angry. It was not until today that I realized that my doubts about the ability of mankind to solve its problems through brain downloading our souls into mainframes means I hate the Negro. (see, for example, here http://www.philipsandifer.com/2015/04/guided-by-beauty-of-their-weapons.html

        “..if you got John C. Wright drunk at the bar, you could get him to admit that he thinks transhumanism and black people are ugly for the same reason.”

      4. It occurs to me, I was too brusque in my last note. I should also answer the question of what my attitude toward same-sex attraction is, since you asked: I am a Catholic. I believe and profess everything the Catholic Church teaches. That includes the provisions in the catechism where she says Homosexuals cannot be held up to any signs of public discrimination or disrespect, and, again, where she says those who suffer this objectively disordered passion are called to a life of celibacy.

        My impatience can perhaps be explained by my experience with drive-by comments: If I write a long and clear essay on the nature of human sexuality and it moral ramifications, which, in theory, you should find utterly appalling and offensive to your world view, I hear nothing. See, for example http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/06/on-the-sexual-nature-of-man/

        But when ever I complain about Leftist intruding political correctness into science fiction, or comics, or any other sneaky, underhanded stealth jihad of your propaganda, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly I find people, as you have done here, trying to put words in my mouth, and accusing me of everything from homophobia to fascism.
        See here, for example: http://www.scifiwright.com/2015/04/do-presently-lose-all-desire-for-light/

        This leads me to the natural suspicion that you and yours do not care about homosexuals one way or another, but you sure as hell care about maintaining your ‘narrative’ and controlling your stream of propaganda — and care about it a lot.

        Now, again, I am being too brusque. Perhaps you are not as my other critics have been, and perhaps you mean well. But if you want to know my opinion about gays, or, for that matter, about no fault divorce, why not link to one of my many columns — more than ten years’ worth — where I give my opinion in no uncertain terms?

        Why put words in my mouth?

      5. Hi John,
        I think you’re experiencing the downside of a network effect. Those comments that you’ve made that have attracted a lot of recent attention are being frequently linked, and are thus more likely to be picked up again. This is one of the uncomfortable side effects of dialog on a scale-free network, something that my recent posts have attempted to reflect, and which I now, ironically appear to be participating in myself. I have no desire whatsoever to put words in anyone’s mouth.

        I will happily look at your other links, which you have brought to my attention and which I simply had not yet come across yet, for the above reason. As I said, I find your example an interesting one, as you seem an intelligent man who has come to some conclusions very different to my own. You embraced Catholicism, I found myself unavoidably drawn to finitism. I feel sad that your experiences with atheism (those that I have so far read) appeared to be so grim and conflicting. I do not agree with you about what atheism represents, or about morality, but this makes me all the more curious as to your process of conversion.

        Please continue to write interesting fiction. Hopefully we can continue to disagree in a rational, productive, and mutually elucidating fashion.

      6. “Hopefully we can continue to disagree in a rational, productive, and mutually elucidating fashion.”

        It would be my honor and my pleasure. As I say, you are an oasis of sanity in a mad world.

        If you wish to write to me privately, my email is at the bottom of my journal page:http://www.scifiwright.com/

      7. Is your question whether promoting the idea that same-sex attraction is normal and healthy, wholesome and righteous and pleasing in the eyes of God is an idea that the Church opposes? It is. Christian preaches chastity, and always has.

        For the record, I myself think this is a non issue. No fault divorce has done much more damage to the social fabric, and is just as alien to traditional Christian teaching, than teaching toleration and love for those who suffer from disorders of the passions.

      8. Hey John,
        I’m delighted that we now seem to be reading each other clearly now. I find myself deeply disturbed by the weaponization of commentary that the internet appears to be fostering. I have good friends who have suffered under this process. Some of those people have opinions that are even functionally identical to those who are choosing to condemn them. What you’re enduring right now must be painful. I’m truly sorry about that. I want no part of it.

        In the spirit of transparent, lighthearted disagreement, though, (which my post was aiming to foster as an alternative,) I would like to ask you your opinion of the producers of the Wizard of Oz. This story is aimed at young children and introduces a late plot twist that, in certain lights, invalidates much of the preceding action in the story (the existence of teleport shoes). This plot twist does not run against Catholic doctrine, but certainly constitutes a deceit though omission. This power of the shoes is not foreshadowed anywhere. Is it safe to propose that you do not consider it propaganda for the footwear industry?

        If you choose to reply, and your reply mocks my position, I will be only pleased.

      9. I cannot enter into the spirit of your jest, because I regard sex as a sacred thing, and the abuse of it as an abomination. In the case of KORRA, this is a show I love, not like, and one which I introduced to my children, and one from which I borrowed characters in put in my role playing game I run for my kids on the weekend, sort of a NARUTO-meets-ONE PIECE mashup. Well, I also have an obligation, whether I like it or not, or whether society likes it or not, to raise my children in the Christian faith. The Christian faith teaches that a man must be honorable and temperate in his sexual passions, and not merely indulge every desire, perverse or wholesome, which happens to strike his fancy. Hence the portrayal of unchaste romance or unnatural sexual passions as admirable and normal is directly contrary to that lesson. This is not a case like Joss Whedan making Willow the Witch into a lesbian in BUFFY nor a case like DOCTOR WHO which intrudes a public service announcement for the culture of death and the cult of phallus worship in every single show. They were open about their loyalties, and they did not betray me. They are good shows, but I am not showing them to my underage children. Because they were both honest enough to warn me of what colors they flew from the mast.
        But not KORRA.
        If it was a show I disliked, or even thought was mediocre, my reaction would be different. I thought the whole world of the Avatar was one of the funniest, best-written, most thoughtful, most action packed, most magical things I had ever seen ever.

        And for the writers to throw away all that good will so that they could drop their pants and wave their diseased sexual organs in the faces of my little children …. ?

        It is not a topic where I am in the mood to jest.

      10. Fair enough. I respect your limits. I sincerely hope we have the opportunity to talk again in future under less charged circumstances.

      11. Respect my limit? What does that mean? I am an old fashioned fellow, and do not speak your modern jargon. Your jest about Oz did not offend me, if that is what you mean. On the other hand, I meant what I said: I do not enter into the spirit of your jest, which is based on minimizing the significance of what we were discussing, rather than discussing it. How in the world you can interpret this to be a request not to discuss it, when it is the opposite, I leave to linguists of the strange jargon of moderns to interpret.

        Thank you again for your courtesy, which is rare and merits repeated praise.

      12. Fair enough again. I would like to substitute the word ‘boundaries’, if that is less provocative. And the boundaries I refer to here relate to engagement in the jest, not the pursuit of the discussion. For what it’s worth, I have enjoyed this discussion. Your comment style encourages me to exercise my vocabulary, which can surely only be good.

      13. I am not pretending I do not understand to make a rhetorical point, nor does the use of the word boundaries make your obscure point more clear, nor is the word limits offensive.

        I will say this in despair: I actually mean what I say (except when I am kidding) and I do not mean what I do not say.

        You are not the only modern who treats the meaning of words as optional, but it is a habit you simply must break if you talk further with me, or we will be convulsed in endless mutual misunderstandings otherwise.

        I am glad you enjoyed the discussion. I am at your service should you wish to continue or this or any topic of mutual interest.

  2. Very nicely put, Alex–this is a fascinating idea that I haven’t seen discussed before. Going to be spending some time pondering this!

  3. This is a fascinating point, Alex. I suspect that one of the major benefits of mockery/derision is that it is far more approachable and conducive to change for the mocked/derided than ostracism is for the ostracized. I know from personal experience that the best way to change someone out of their stubborn ways is to turn their stubborn ways into a joke and laugh them into recognizing that their stubborn ways are a bit ridiculous. Confronting them head-on makes them defensive & in their defense they dig a deeper ideological trench. Laughing with them offers them a road to redemption whereby we never make a scene about their stubborn ways and they eventually never mention them again.

    I certainly believe that Americans, despite living in an almost unprecedented multicultural society, don’t know the first thing about how to deal with people who are radically different from them. I think you’re onto something that space could be one of the ultimate causes of a deep-rooted communication deficiency in American culture. I always thought that the solution to all of America’s multi-cultural/partisan ills is to randomly mix kids so they have friends from every ethnic/political background. I suspect the assortative grouping of American political and ethnic and religious groups within urban areas perpetuates this communication gap, and maybe there’s merit in starting a website that could facilitate some ideological outbreeding (as I suspect people tend to find only news source & facebook friends that match their beliefs).

    The point that the internet makes us closer is so true. Generations of humans fine-tuned the moral code of conduct for how to be polite in the historical settings of dining rooms and porches and the likes, but now we’re getting thrown into a completely different mode of interaction and with it we’re seeing a desperate need to define codes of conduct that ensure a stable, functioning society. Your point about the importance of derision fits well in our race for a moral code of the internet.

  4. Sir, I surely do believe you are right.Mockery is the way forward. Therefore I propose that you thoroughly and entirely mock this attempted fisking of mine, or find those willing to do so.

    https://marsascendant.wordpress.com/2015/04/23/in-which-this-ignorant-ass-redneck-attempts-to-fisk-one-of-them-genius-professorial-types/

    It is my fervent hope that you find something worthy of mocking here, even if it is my own naked attempt at self promotion

    1. Yep. That’s the spirit. Nicely said, sir. It made me laugh and think. Thank goodness the Puppies decided to politicize the Hugos and fill their inboxes with spam rather than simply setting up a new award based on their own principles. Otherwise, we’d have never had the chance to e-meet.

  5. i’m blessedly removed from the Hugos and related puppies and all that. I would like to hear more about your ideas of mockery being helpful. While I agree with your interpretation of historical ostracism (really interesting connections you made, there!), I equate mockery with pettiness at best, and cruelty at worst. That said, I’m an American and was a kid who just didn’t understand the concept of teasing. As an adult, I have a better understanding of it but it seems… wearisome. Like, “Oh great, now we have to play that bizarre game in which you say something mean now and I’m supposed to gauge by your behavior, word choice or expression that you don’t really mean it. This is supposed to be inherently amusing and if I participate in this weird game, you like me more. This is somehow preferrable to having a direct, honest conversation.” Maybe you mean that in situations in which people are so defensive that they can’t have a direct, honest conversation without attacking one another, mockery and derision are preferable because they yield less violence and hatred than a shouting match or worse? That could be true for some people. Then again, deflecting deep anger with humor makes other people feel dismissed, unheard, and disrespected. As someone recently suggested, perhaps British-style mockery is different than American-style? And I just mean in general, not in relation to the Hugos. As soon as I heard about this Hugo uproar I was like, “I don’t have time for this crap. I’m gonna ostracize this beast like the American that I am.” 🙂

    1. Hey KMG,
      Yes, I think there is a difference between British-style mockery and American-style, in part because of the way it’s received. But I should be honest. I’m not that great at teasing myself. I’m more comfortable where I live now in California, on the whole, than I was in England. But I do miss the frequency of laughter that there is in Britain, and I miss people not taking themselves too seriously.
      I think the main difference lies in expectation. People in the US tend to assume that laughter is divisive, and so it is. Whereas people in Britain tend to think that it’s normal, so the sting is less. And I think there are two ways to bridge that gap. The first is for people to practice making light of each other’s positions and remembering to lighten up, themselves. The second is for Americans to be careful and accurate in their teasing. I think Marsultor13’s post in this thread is actually a good example.
      If you want examples of British teasing in action, take a look at video clips of Prime Minister’s Question Time. Sometimes these are just grim, rather than witty, but you have to ask yourself what it would take for US politicians to face direct criticism with that level of courage.
      Thank you for your question, btw. It’s a good one. I’ll try to follow up with some more explicit differences in a subsequent post.

    2. I looked around online for an example of the attitude I’m talking about. While it’s not the sharpest comedy, this chap encapsulates what I’m talking about.

      And for something sharper, and perhaps more relevant to the topic discussed here, there’s this.

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