Tag Archives: UK

Are we hitting peak social justice?

I have a prediction, and it’s this: outraged social norming on the political left is close to a tipping point beyond which the left will begin to collapse under the constraints of its own narrative. 

Do I like this prediction? No, I do not. Do I want it to be true? No. Do I have opinions about it? Yes, of course. But in this post I want to try to talk about what I think I see, rather than what I believe is right. I’m deliberately going to try to resist expressing direct sentiment here about the norming itself, or its moral value, or its targets. And that’s because I believe in a lot of the things that are being pushed for in the public dialog on the internet, but don’t want this post to automatically be about the value of my opinions or anyone else’s. Because that kind of exchange is part of what I see as the problem.

My goal here, instead, is to lay out the observations and reasons that led me to this prediction. If you disagree about the prediction and have evidence of a trend that balances it, I’d like to hear about it and know your reasoning. If you agree, then please feel free to help me figure out what the hell we can do about. And in any case, we’ll be able to watch what happens over the next five years to see if my fears play out.

I first became seriously worried about how the left-leaning dialog on the internet was functioning during the reaction to Patricia Arquette’s Oscars debacle. She made an impassioned speech about gender equality and subsequently made a less than stellar remark in the pressroom which social media seemed to pay far more attention to than her initial remarks. I didn’t understand at the time why commenters on the left would seemingly push so hard to take down a highly visible public figure promoting a progressive agenda, albeit in a flawed way.

I later learned about the internet debate around an essay written by Jonathan Chait, in which he criticized what he saw as a growing culture of political correctness. (I was apparently the last person on the internet to hear about this.) Jon’s concern was that the culture of the left was alienating its own liberal allies.

The number of loud, critical responses that were made to his piece are too numerous to link to here. If you’re interested, just google ‘jon chait pc’ and read what comes back. A lot of it is very interesting.

One particular line of reasoning that I encountered several times while reading through the responses to his piece was this: where is your actual evidence that the current form of social critiquing is doing more harm than good? 

It’s natural to see where this question comes from. A lot of the loudest, and most proactive commentary on the left comes from people who are urgently trying to advance a social good. Nobody wants to hear that their best attempts to improve the world may be counterproductive, even though the scale of their response kind of made Jon’s point for him. However, the consensus seemed to be that Jon Chait had no real data. He had anecdotes, some of which were questionable.

However, this year, we were presented with some very powerful and informative data: the surprise success of the conservative party in the British election. Against expectations, Labor were trounced. I say this as someone hoping they would win.

When British analysts attempted to understand why the polls had provided such wrong predictions of the election outcome, one phrase was extensively employed: ‘shy Tories’. In other words, people who’d decided to vote Conservative, but didn’t want to admit it.

In the wake of the Conservative victory, it wasn’t hard to find articles like this one, decrying the left as founded on a philosophy of exclusion and hate. There were other, more subdued articles such as this in the Guardian, that attempted to understand what had happened. Broadly speaking, it seemed that Britain had become increasingly populated with people whose views had not skewed left even though the dialog around them had.

I am not proposing here that the ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon was exclusively responsible for the Conservative win. It wasn’t. There was far more to the election than that. What I am doing, though, is pointing out that this is a national-level example of a particular social mechanism at work.

People’s opinions can fall out of step with the public narrative that surrounds them. When this happens, they will not necessarily admit it, but they may polarize against the narrative, and then subsequently act to obstruct or destroy it.  

Note that this phenomenon has nothing to do with the social value of the narrative being engaged in or who has the moral high-ground. All that needs to happen for the narrative to fail is that enough people feel that they cannot participate in it.

What is happening in Britain, though, is just one part of a dialog happening throughout the western world. Changes in one country will not necessarily repeat elsewhere. So, in order to make a guess about the future, it’d be useful to have some small, yet relatively globalized microcosm of politics where we could watch the polarization of social dialog play out.

Fortunately we science fiction enthusiasts have one. The tiny, hyperbolic world of fandom may give us a glimpse of the future. And yes, I’m talking about the dreaded Hugos debate again.

What amazes me most at this point about the Hugos fight is that posts are still appearing. The battle continues. The best post I saw recently was this one by Eric Flint, which I think shows both his wisdom and his exhaustion. I found myself wondering how people in the community had the energy to sustain their anger.

I now think I understand what is going on. People are validating on the conflict on both sides. By which I mean that in taking up an entrenched position and defending it, they are experiencing a neurological reward, regardless of how coherent or self-consistent that position is. Consequently, they will probably keep at it until something more distracting comes along.

If this pattern starts repeating itself in mainstream society, I suspect that the current progressive narrative on the internet will split. In the worst case, the consensus may go into reverse. We should not kid ourselves that social progress has enjoyed a smooth linear development.

Specifically, I would propose, a progressive agenda tends to have greater traction during times of collective prosperity, when the constraints on individuals are reduced. When inequality begins to dominate, social constraints tighten. Ironically, people usually become more right-wing as their freedoms shrink, sometimes dramatically so. They look around for someone to blame who they can actually reach and affect, rather than the financial barons that they cannot. Witness the rise of the radical right in Europe happening right now.

There is a lag, though—a period in which freedoms are reducing while the juggernaut of social commentary continues undeterred. I fear that we are in that gap right now. That scares me because only a unified, inclusive, non-judgmental left has any chance against the accelerating might of the world’s oligarchical class.

In reality, almost all of us are on the same side, because we will rise or fall together. Everyone who can remember how many houses they own on a given day is on our side. Everyone who struggles with the payments on their second yacht is on our side. Everyone who owns a plane but not their own jet is on our side. I say this because all of these people will suffer in the power-lockout that is evolving, even if they cannot see it yet.

And everyone who makes copious mistakes in their vision of social inclusion, but is nevertheless ready to stand up and act to defend inclusion, is on our side. To argue otherwise, I’d propose, is to participate in the death of progressivism, rather than to lead it.

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

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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.)