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.

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