Monday, April 27, 2015

Professor Pangloss Has No Answers Here

The Hugo debate seems to have died down a bit, probably because everyone involved has blocked everyone else's Facebook feeds and moderated each other's comments out of existence, but it's still bringing plenty of controversy. And as always when there's controversy, a peculiar sort of individual invariably raises their head to call out a battle cry that they're sure will resolve the issue: "Come on, guys. Can't we all just get along?"

To these people, the problem isn't whether or not the Puppies have done anything wrong by ginning up a slate of awards for their cronies. The problem is that people aren't willing to discuss it politely. Everyone is being so mean to each other. (There are even some people threatening physical violence, which is just never acceptable no matter who's doing it!) Everyone's making it an "Us vs Them" issue, taking a side instead of having a discussion. Nobody's trying to see the other person's point of view anymore, that's the real issue. Nobody's being understanding. Why, if both sides would stop being so gosh-darn rude and saying such nasty things to each other, or even better yet would stop pretending there's a "side" to be taken in what's really just a friendly disagreement between sci-fi neighbords, we'd probably be able to get this whole thing settled in a few days or so!

There are two big faults in this Panglossian vision of the science-fiction fandom community. The first is that it attempts to avoid taking sides by pretending that the problem is simply "extremism", and castigating (gently, oh so gently, like being smothered in spiderwebs) both groups for failing to control their extremists. Why is this a fault, though? Surely civility is a good thing, right? Threats are bad, calls for violence are bad, aggression and hostility is bad. Telling everyone to calm down and politely has to be a good thing...

But the two sides are not being equally uncivil. The Panglossians are bending over backwards to seem impartial, but they're confusing impartiality with neutrality. An impartial observer would have to conclude that David Gerrold, who is the Guest of Honor at this year's Hugos and who has been very vocal in his condemnation of the Puppies, has not made any threats and has made it clear that he does not condone those who do. Connie Willis, who made a principled stand of refusing to host the awards, is not calling for violence. George R.R. Martin might have eviscerated Larry Correia's arguments, but he certainly hasn't eviscerated Larry Correia. John Scalzi, who is according to the Puppies the architect of all that is evil, cruel, nasty and unforgiving, has made it pretty damn clear that he's too busy laughing his ass off to care about this. The vast majority of people who disagree with the Puppies are doing so fairly.

And Brad Torgersen? He's equating himself with General Lee. Ted Beale? He's talking about how it would be a rational act to pour acid into the faces of people who disagree with him. (Not about the Hugos specifically, no. That would be crazy. He's talking about people who teach women how to read.) Larry Correia is out there with his guns daring anyone who disagrees with him to come after him...admittedly, this has been his default state for the better part of a decade, but it doesn't look good here.

And despite the claims to the contrary, Larry and Brad and Teddy have a) been coordinating efforts right up until the point where it became inconvenient for Larry and Brad to have a white supremacist and misogynist hanging around their neck, at which point they tried real hard to pretend they never even heard of Ted Beale while simultaneously claiming that they'd never repudiate him Because That Would Be Wrong, and b) reached out to GamerGate, a Twitter-wielding mob primarily known at this point for sending rape and murder threats to feminists. Anyone impartial would say that the "extremists" are concentrated about 99% in one group. Trying to get by without naming names, simply saying, "Oh, a plague on both your houses, EXTREMISTS, you!" is taking sides by refusing to call the situation what it is.

Which leads us to that second big fault: The Panglossians believe that if both sides toned down their rhetoric, if somehow the GamerGaters stopped issuing death threats long enough to have a friendly chat and the Puppies decided to drop Ted Beale like a hot potato and it didn't cost them 90% of their base, then we could all find common ground and resolve this in a friendly way.

But we can't. Because fundamentally, no matter how much Brad and Larry and Ted and the GamerGaters who are backing them try frantically to paper over their message with "there's too much affirmative action in science fiction right now" and "they're pandering to literary tastes instead of meat and potatoes fans who don't want 'message fiction'" and "Unlike the white males she excoriates, there is no evidence to be found anywhere on the planet that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support from those white males" (okay, that one's a little less papered over than the others)...ultimately, these are people whose end goal is the total exclusion of those who disagree with them from the community at large. These are people who won't be happy until Brianna Wu gives up her art and her activism and ceases to use the Internet as a tool for social engagement with other human beings. These are people who will not stop until either they die of old age or Nora Jemisin stops writing, speaking, and existing where they're aware of it. These are people who cannot find a middle ground or a happy medium, because they feel very strongly that noticing the existence of women and minorities is a problem for them.

You can't have a "friendly disagreement" about that. And I'm fully aware that when I don't take sides, when I decide that the real problem is that people are taking these things too personally and we should just discuss it politely as an abstract issue, what I'm really saying is that I won't try too hard to defend people I admire and respect while other people are working very hard to erase them from the society I'm a part of. When I don't take sides, I am taking a side by default, and it is the side of the people who hate.

So yep, it's Us vs Them. It's Us vs Them because the Puppies and the GamerGaters have picked a fight with a group of people who can't walk away, because their fundamental disagreement with women and minorities is that they exist and that isn't likely to change soon. We may not want to pick a side, but a lot of people had one chosen for them on the day they were born. Not picking a side is abandoning them, and I'm not willing to do that. I'll be as civil as I can, as polite as the opposition warrants, and of course I won't use or condone violence. But this is not the best of all possible worlds, and we can't fix the problem in our community by pretending it is.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

It's the Obvious Sequel, In Hindsight

Follow along with me on this:

1) Bilbo, like the elves, "passed into the West" at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This was during the age of Middle-Earth, implying that it eventually came to be our Earth.

2) Tolkien, as a Briton himself, thought of Middle-Earth as the forebear of Europe. This means that if Bilbo and the elves went west on a great ocean, they eventually came to what would become the continent of North America.

3) His time as a ringbearer, while not good for his soul, did confer upon him extended life. There's no real way of knowing how much extended life would be granted; it's possible that he continued to live for centuries or even millennia.

4) His time as an adventurer granted Bilbo unique skills and talents that could, potentially, be called upon by others in need of a thief.

5) Although he's a skilled thief and an above average combatant for a hobbit his age, Bilbo would need protection if he was going to go on some sort of "mission" for the government.

This leads us to 6) Bilbo Baggins teams up with John McClane to save the United States from the last descendants of the orcs.

Summer 2016: Bruce Willis. Ian Holm. "Old Hobbits Die Hard".

...I'll start running now, shall I?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Maybe Some Flying Spaghetti Monster Greeting Cards?

I stopped at my local convenience store this morning for my daily dose of caffeine, and saw that they had a special on Mountain Dew Baja Blast and Mountain Dew Code Red that was good for today only. Now, of course, it could entirely be coincidence that they were doing specials on Mountain Dew on 4/20...I mean, they didn't also have specials on Doritos and Funyuns, so we don't have a clear link...but when combined with the Baker's Square promotion of Pi Day, I think you can at least start to make a case that all those jokey "geek holidays" we talk about on the Internet are starting to filter into mainstream culture.

Which means, of course, that they're going to be commercialized to hell and back. I'm sure that within a few years, Captain Morgan and Long John Silver's will be trying to turn 'Talk Like a Pirate Day' into their own little excuse to eat fish and chips and guzzle rum ("order in yer best pirate speak to get ten percent off! ARRRRR!") and I'm absolutely dreading what they'll do with May 4th. ("The new lightsaber earrings from Helzberg. Show her you'd betray the Jedi Order...all over again.")

(On the other hand, this will mean that we'll get 'Star Wars' fans decrying the over-commercialization of "Star Wars Day", and that's just going to be a treat for fans of irony everywhere.)

But the main thing I'm taking away from this is that if the mainstream is going to take all our joke holidays and make them into real events, complete with flowers and cards and gifts, we are going to have to up our game in terms of joke holidays. Anyone up for "Destroy the Moon Day", held every March 29th in honor of the First Annual Destroy the Moon Festival in Night Vale? Participants will shake their fist at the moon and direct their hatred at it in an attempt to destroy the moon with their minds. Or perhaps we can get Fibonacci Day, held on January 1st, 2023 and then again on January 2nd, 2035 and then again on February 3rd in 2058? Or maybe May 5th can be Zombie Apocalypse Day, and we can all give each other of Venus Fly Traps? I mean, the sky's the limit here. Let's go nuts and see what we can turn into a tradition.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Conundrums for the Ages

How exactly does one reconcile writing, "I don't wast time on the mike with a dope rhyme" in the same song as "I'm just a squirrel, tryin' ta get a nut/to move your butt/to the dance floor"? I don't think I will ever understand this.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cognitive Dissonance and C.S. Lewis' Stable

I think I owe C.S. Lewis an apology.

Okay, that probably needs a little explanation. A while back, I decided to re-read the Narnia series. This would probably have been close to a decade ago, but it was the first time I'd read it as an adult, and I was really hit hard by how didactic and preachy the books were when I was old enough to recognize the Christianity metaphors for what they were. The books weren't all bad, don't get me wrong, but some scenes and a couple of entire books felt a little bit arrogant and off-putting in their defense of religion. (To throw out a minor example first, the ending of 'The Silver Chair' seems to convey the message that it's okay to beat up little kids if you feel like God is telling you it's the right thing to do, because God wouldn't make you want to do bad things. I don't know if that's the best message to send, is all I'm saying.)

In particular, 'The Last Battle' felt really insane and creepy. There was a lot of material in there about how religious tolerance is really just a lie told by Satan to corrupt the faithful (and this felt especially awkward when you consider that Tash drew inspiration about equally from Allah and Satan, and Lewis clearly intended his audience to conflate the two) and the whole thing ends with everyone cheering about the revelation that they all died in a horrific train accident and so did their parents., you can probably tell that this is going to be a pretty back-handed apology. Not much I can do there.

The bit I want to apologize for, though, is the bit about the dwarves. For those of you who haven't read the book recently (or who have never read the book and are busily looking it up on Wikipedia to see if I made up the bit about everyone being really excited that their parents are dead just like them) there are a group of dwarves who refuse to believe that Aslan's returned...which is theoretically good, because he hasn't and it's all a fraud. But they take it too far, at least in the opinion of Lewis, and decide they're not going to believe in anything anymore. They wind up going to Aslan's country with all of the other characters through a mystic portal in an old stable, but they don't experience it the way everyone else does. To them, it's just the grimy stable that they were locked into. Every bit of evidence they're provided is just another lie to them, because they believe deep down that there is no Aslan and no Heaven Aslan's country to go to.

And while I think that this is a pretty uncharitable view of atheism and shows Lewis in a pretty poor light (have I mentioned this is a back-handed apology yet?) it does strike me as a very useful metaphor for cognitive dissonance in general. Once you allow yourself to believe very strongly in a narrative, it really is very easy to twist and contort the facts to fit that narrative and become imprisoned in it. In reality, you're free--there are blue skies and singing birds all around you, and green grass underneath your feet--but all you can see is the walls you've built for yourself.

For one example out of literally thousands, let's look at Obamacare. By any reasonable standard, it's a success. Healthcare costs are falling, the number of uninsured is at an all time low, people all over the country are getting the lifesaving medical attention they need and the system is paying for itself. But there are a lot of people out there who have invested their emotional well-being into opposing Obamacare based on reasons that are integral to their sense of self more than on facts. When you confront these people with the numbers, they insist that the numbers must be wrong, because Obamacare is a disaster and a failure and we have to repeal it immediately to save the country. When you point out that real people will die if the law is repealed, they insist that you simply can't be right. If you press them with too many truths, they'll preserve their sense of self and their understanding of the way the world is supposed to work by deciding that you're simply not trustworthy. You are consigned to the "them", the shadowy and nefarious group that opposes right-thinking people, and everything you say is discounted as a malicious lie.

Obamacare is only one example. You can probably think of plenty yourself--people who've unfriended you when you started pointing out holes in anti-vaxxer propaganda, people who made the news for calling Sandy Hook Elementary and demanding to speak to people who were killed in the shootings, people currently analogizing themselves to North Korean political prisoners because people were mean to them on the Internet...all of them, in some way, have become prisoners of their narrative. They've closed themselves off from the truth because it conflicts with what they need to believe, and they'd rather believe a terrible lie than live a wonderful truth because they're too scared to give up what defines them. It really is an amazing metaphor, one that serves as a cautionary reminder to open yourself to reality rather than cling to a narrative. It's worth more as a metaphor than I thought it was, and for that, I owe C.S. Lewis an apology for dismissing it unfairly.

Still not buying that "Tashlan" stuff, though.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Sad Puppies and Cargo Cults

I've read a lot of arguments the last few days. I'm pretty sure that anyone who's got more than a few writers on their Twitter feed or Facebook page can say the same thing, thanks to the Sad/Rabid Puppies and their attempt to essentially build their own Hugo Awards with blackjack and hookers. They have made a lot of writers upset, and one thing you can guarantee when you get writers upset is that you're going to get some pretty interesting blog posts out of it.

They've been arguing back in turn, both with their own blog posts and with comments on the posts they disagree with, which has given me a lot of opportunities to see their reasoning in action. And it feels, well...familiar to me. I've seen it with GamerGate, with Duck Dynasty, with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, with the Trayvon Martin's a style of argument I'm getting to be pretty familiar with, regardless of the specific cause it's employed in support of. Let's call it "cargo cult reasoning".

First, a bit of background for those of you unfamiliar with the term. During World War II, both the Japanese and the Americans used the Melanesian Islands as a staging ground for their operations. The natives of these islands had never been in contact with any other civilization, and had no experience of modern manufacturing techniques, technology or warfare. Soldiers on both sides attempted to befriend the natives with gifts of food, clothing, medicine and other useful items right up until the end of the war. The natives, with no cultural framework that they could use to understand these events, created a religion around them. (Actually several, but I'm simplifying here for the sake of brevity.) (Yes, I know. Probably not enough.)

The religion, which has come to be known as the "cargo cult", revolved around trying to bring back the gods so that they could dispense their gifts of "cargo" to the natives. They knew that the airplane was a powerful totemic symbol to the gods, that they cleared land for it and watched the skies for its gifts, so they made their own airplanes out of wood and straw. They replicated the form in an effort to gain the power of the symbol, but they never understood what actually made it fly. They cleared airfields to give the cargo planes a place to land, they replicated the wooden crosses that they saw the soldiers pray to in the hopes that the soldiers' gods would hear short, they saw something powerful and attempted to mimic in order to gain its blessings without ever once understanding what they were really looking at.

What does this have to do with the modern day? Well, there are a lot of people out there who are trying to exclude women, minorities, people with different sexual preferences and different sexual identities from what they view as their exclusive purview. Maybe it's TV, maybe it's science-fiction, maybe it's video games or weddings or pizza parlors--there are a lot of different battlegrounds on this particular front. But the fundamental intent, when you break it down, is to keep people who aren't like them from positions of authority or power in various spheres of influence.

Now, their basic argument for this is, "These people aren't like us and having to be around them makes me uncomfortable." But these days, not only is that not a winning argument, it's an instant losing argument. They can't even hint to others that this is the real reason for their behavior (in fact, some of them can't even hint it to themselves) because the vast majority of people no longer feel that this is an acceptable reason to ostracize or oppress people. So they basically have no real arguments that they can use.

And so they respond the same way the cargo cult does. They ape the form of arguments they've seen succeed in the past, without ever really understanding the underlying structure that makes them meaningful. This "cargo cult reasoning" sounds like a line of rational debate--it sounds very similar to the exact line of argument that once worked on them. But the similarity is entirely superficial, and the actual argument, just doesn't fly.

Take "oppression", for example. The cargo cult debaters understand that a majority oppressing a minority is a bad thing, because every time they've tried to argue for legalized discrimination, that argument has been given in opposition. So they look at themselves, and they say, "Well, we're clearly a minority--almost nobody agrees with us. And we're clearly oppressed--there are things that we want to do that we're not being allowed to do. Therefore, we are an oppressed minority!" And so they use that argument whenever anyone tells them that they have to include women and minorities. "You're discriminating against me by forcing me to be inclusive!"

But of course, this willfully misunderstands the meaning of 'force', 'discriminate', 'minority', and 'oppress'. The underlying structure of the argument--that people should not be punished for something beyond their control like their gender, sexual preference or skin color, or for tightly-held and fundamental beliefs like one's religious identifications--is lost in a claim that sounds superficially similar, but that really means that people shouldn't be held responsible for their opinions or actions as long as they're not universally held.

Likewise, cargo cult debaters understand that it can be argued that societies establish codes and taboos and punish those that disagree with them, and that when those codes are unfair it's hard to speak up for fear of upsetting that establishment, and it takes courage and an unwavering belief in the rightness of one's cause to overcome that fear. But they omit a key part of that argument when they use it--"when those codes are unfair". Suddenly, the fewer people that agree with them, the righter they are!

The list can go on virtually forever--co-opting members of a minority to claim that they represent the minority stance (the "some of my best friends are" defense), defending extremist tactics as "fair" by pointing to extremists they disagree with who used them, claiming a "right to free speech" as a right to present their opinions or beliefs entirely unchallenged...but they all have a central commonality to them. All of them attempt to erase context from the debate in order to make their arguments seem like those of the people opposing them, in order to make them appear reasonable to people who aren't paying close attention. They look like arguments everyone supports--for freedom! Against oppression! Pro-equality! Anti-establishment! But they can be easily exposed for the sham they are simply by restoring that context. Ask yourself if it's really likely that these efforts to restore an ethical relationship between game companies and game journalists would never focus on a AAA studio. Ask yourself how 'The Avengers' can be cited as an example of the kind of "populist" movie that couldn't possibly win a Hugo when it did, in fact, win a Hugo.

In short, don't be afraid to get into the airplane and have a look around. Because the arguments that might sound good from a distance probably won't do so well up close.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Hugo Awards

I've spent a little while wondering exactly what to say about the Hugo Award nominations. Part of me wants to do a savage, scathing, detailed, point-by-point takedown of the utter mendacity, stupidity, hypocrisy and unmitigated gall that it takes to claim that you're doing the right thing by attempting one of the most prestigious awards in your field so that an unrepentant racist, misogynist and general terrible human being stands a good chance of winning...

But the more I think about it, the more I feel like a point-by-point takedown is exactly what the Sad and Rabid Puppies are looking for. More than that, it's what they live for; they want people to engage them and their ideas in an honest, good-faith debate about their intentions and methods and what it all means for the future of science-fiction. Because that accords them a legitimacy that their actions have not earned; more importantly, it bogs their defenders down in a constant and unending treadmill of verifying and fact-checking and debating and refuting denials and proving credibility and apologizing for mistakes and correcting mistakes and re-refuting things that have already been refuted because a new denial has come out and debunking and rebunking and refuting character smears and refuting denials of character smears and and and and and and and and...

And there's no need for that. The Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies openly ginned up a slate of nominees who agreed with them politically, purely to show that the Hugos could be hijacked by a small group of sufficiently dedicated assholes. Everything else about this, from the "it's really all about the stories" to "Scalzi did it first" to "but my wife is black so I can't be racist" to "GamerGate didn't get involved" to "Correia declined his nomination" to "you have to read all our garbage entries before you can vote against them or you're the hypocrite here" to "voting 'No Award' just shows that you're a tool of the Man (the black, lesbian Man)" to "the real victim is us white male science fiction fans who can't get Hugos anymore" to "the rules don't explicitly say you can't do this" to "how DARE you, sir!" to every other defense, obfuscation, dodge, lie, and bad-faith argument they have advanced is all just an attempt to conceal that basic fact.

Nothing they say matters, because none of it is being argued in good faith. Their words are just an attempt to distract you from their actions. That's an insult in and of itself, because when you're talking to one of the most literate and intelligent groups of people in the world about books, the last thing you should be doing is trying to pretend that you don't know what a subtext is and that nobody should read anything into your statements. But the point is, they're never going to stop lying. They're never going to stop arguing. They're always going to try to turn everything into a rhetorical victory for their side, because their viewpoints are slowly receding into the dust of history and all they have left is empty rhetoric. If they lose, they will claim they're being oppressed. If they win, they will claim their ideas have been validated. If the rules change to prevent them from acting in bad faith again, they'll claim that they would have won if things had been "fair" (ie, if they had been able to game the rules sufficiently to win). Nothing you say will ever force the kind of introspection they'd need to undergo to understand why they're terrible people, and everyone else already knows it. So it's not worth talking about.

So don't argue with the Puppies. Just vote "No Award" in the categories they dominated, and leave them right the hell off the ballot. Because Puppies don't understand "No". They understand a newspaper to the nose.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Review: Prudence

New Gail Carriger book new Gail Carriger book new Gail Carriger book WOOOOOO!

So as you may have guessed, I was a bit excited at seeing 'Prudence', the new book (and new series) from Gail Carriger in my local bookstore. (I was even more excited that between the various discounts I got and coupons I had, I paid approximately eight dollars for it. What can I say, I'm thrifty to a fault.) This one jumps ahead some twenty-odd years and follows Rue, Alexia's shapestealing daughter, on her own series of adventures in the steampunk werewolf/vampire-founded British Empire.

And 99% of this is even better than the previous series. For one thing, we get out of Europe and see some of the consequences of Queen Victoria's use of supernaturals to ensure the perpetual dominion of Britain over the world. Rue travels to India, ostensibly in search of a new variety of tea leaf, only to get embroiled in a nasty supernatural war with a whole host of players, and questions that Rue's sheltered life of privilege never prepared her for. I'm not saying that this is all about revolution and a post-colonial examination of the inhumanity of the British Empire using literally inhuman creatures as a metaphor--not yet, at least. It's still the first book. But 'Prudence' takes the bold stand that maybe the British Empire wasn't an unalloyed good for the indigenous peoples of the Imperial territories (SARCASM ALERT!) which is more than the previous series did.

Plus there's some really cool world-building involving other supernatural species (I'd say spoilers, but when a lioness shows up within the first hundred pages, vanishes suddenly, and a mysterious woman walks out of the room it was in, what conclusions do you draw?) and as always, excellent and witty prose. Oh, and there is an adorable kitty and a charming working-class kid named Spoo who should get her own series of books about being a child laborer on a dirigible. These are also great things.

If I had one quibble, it would be that the central romantic relationship between Quesnel (a minor supporting character from the previous series, now all grown up) and Rue feels a bit like it's relying on inertia rather than chemistry--you recognize Character A, you recognize Character B, why not ship them? But the story doesn't sell me on it. Plus, after four solid books of bisexual subtext with Madame Lefoux, I'm ready for Carriger to quit beating around the bush and have an openly bi lead. I'm basically shipping Rukhmet for the rest of the series, is what I'm saying here.

That's just a quibble, though, with what was otherwise an excellent book in what I'm sure is going to be an excellent series. Huzzah for Gail Carriger!