NOTE: I got my invitations from Loncon 3 today. They’re including my novelette “The Exchange Officers” and my novella “The Chaplain’s War” in the traditional electronic Hugo voters packet. So I wanted to take this opportunity to thank the Loncon 3 concom (and everyone who has been working diligently on the 2014 Hugos) for their professionalism during what has been something of a turbulent time — between the fracas over Johnathan Ross having been invited (and disinvited) to be host, and now the fracas over the Hugo ballot itself. I am reminded of the adage: you can make all of the people happy some of the time, you can make some of the people happy all of the time, but you can’t make all of the people happy all of the time. Kudos, Loncon 3. Thusfar, you’ve treated me like a pro, and I appreciate it very much.
Something else: in the last 7 days I’ve had a number of people approach me both publicly and privately to ask, “How can you possibly associate yourself with that (insert bad words here) person, Vox Day? Don’t you know that he’s a raging (insert bad words here) and ought to be shunned?” Likewise, I’ve been accused of supporting Day; even of supporting the things he’s written about ethnicity, sexuality, and gender. To which I have to say (as I’ve said in each instance) my merely being on the ballot with Day, or engaging him in dialogue, does not automatically mean I agree with Day, nor does it automatically mean I agree with any of the stances he has taken on potentially controversial issues.
So, how come I don’t shun Vox and call him names, because shunning Vox and calling him names is (apparently) the only civilized thing to do?
Let me tell you a fable:
Once upon a time there was a young person named Wanda who believed that she had discovered a way for human beings to live, and a path for human beings to follow, which would lead to true happiness and everlasting life with spouses and family. She went across the land speaking her truth and gathering like-minded souls to her flag. Eventually they were given a name by the outside world, because the young woman had grown up and created a book containing her beliefs: the Book of Wanda, and she and her people became known as Wandians. Now, the Wandians were not well liked by ordinary folk. Wandians had odd ideas and odd beliefs and odd practices. They just weren’t right, according to good and decent standards. So the Wandians began to be persecuted. Their property was destroyed and they were driven off their lands. From region to region they traveled, enduring ever-greater forms of physical and legal abuse. Eventually one of the lords of the land issued an extermination order against Wandians, such that killing a Wandian was lawful. Poor Wanda herself was jailed and ultimately executed by a mob, and the Wandians fled into the wilderness to create their own civilization very distant from where all the trouble had started. Ultimately time passed, and the Wandians were grudgingly re-joined to the society which they had previously fled. But to this day, Wandians are regarded with suspicion, or even (in some instances) hatred. It’s not unusual for a Wandian to hear outlandish stories about his people. Wanda herself is derided in many circles for being a charlatan and a fraud. And Wandians struggle still for acceptance and understanding, despite being good, decent, and upstanding people (in the main) and despite living in a supposedly tolerant and open-minded era.
Now, let me also relate to you an encapsulation of an old Twilight Zone (revival) episode:
A man indicted for a crime is confronted by the police. His punishment is not jail. They apply a device to the criminal’s forehead which alters the shape of his forehead, leaving a grotesque mark. No matter how the man tries to cover the mark with clothing, the mark simply burns through, and anyone and everyone who sees the mark knows to shun the man. He cannot engage in business, talk to friends or loved ones or neighbors, work a job, or have any contact with humanity at all. Anyone caught interacting with the criminal or helping him will themselves become a criminal, thus also enduring the shunning and ostracising of the mark on their foreheads. Even medical help is off limits, as the man discovers when he becomes targeted by other criminals, and is injured badly. He ultimately limps through his term of punishment, scavenging what he can from the margins of civilization. And when the time comes, the police return and the mark on his forehead is removed. Relieved to have been freed from his prison without walls, the man re-enters society as an acceptable citizen. Except . . . one day he sees a woman who is marked as he was marked. She spots him and recognizes him from the days when he was still marked like she is. She pleads with him to not ignore her. He tries to pass by her without stopping, but her piteous cries for his mercy soften his heart, because he knows her pain and anguish, and he turns and embraces her while the robotic drones of enforcement surround them both and announce that they are engaging in criminal activity.
All societies and eras have had Untouchables — those castes or peoples who are deemed out-of-bounds for polite or proper folk, and who are divorced from the world of acceptable social interactivity. Either for ethnic reasons, religious reasons, or fear of biological or even ideological contamination. Some societies have doomed their Untouchables to servitude and slavery. Others banish them, as the Soviet Union did with its Untouchables by sending them to die in the infamous gulags. Still others allow the Untouchables to be a part of society, but lurking in a kind of second class status, destined to never partake as full citizens. In each and every instance, the power brokers and enforcers of conformity have had what were (to them) perfectly sane and reasonable excuses to treat the Untouchables as Untouchable.
The thrust of American social progress in the 20th and 21st centuries has been to fully enfranchise practically every previously Untouchable segment of the population. Except, this progress has been haphazard and uneven. Not every demographic has achieved the same results, and mileage has definitely varied. The formerly Untouchable do not themselves always mingle well. More disturbing still, there is an emerging sentiment that says: in order to protect and defend those who were previously Untouchable, we must invent a new set of Untouchables who will become the repositories for societal scorn and ostracism. Ergo, the tables are turned, and the pendulum swings.
Go back and re-read my fable. Change the word Wandian to Mormon. I am a Mormon. That is the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. If you’re LDS and you’ve lived anywhere outside of Utah or the United States, you’ve encountered it: the suspicion, the strange reactions, the fear, and even the hatred. We are still an odd duck in the world pond. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but it’s bad enough that our missionaries still bring home stories of verbal and physical abuse from around America and across the globe. Businesspeople and politicians who happen to be Mormon and who achieve prominence cannot do their jobs without having their religious affiliation become a topic of discussion, as well as criticism. In some circles (depending on the politics and depending on the business) you cannot be a Mormon without earning the scorn of your compatriots; be it direct, or subtle.
Now, perhaps it’s because I am a Mormon that the Twilight Zone (revival) episode (“To See The Invisible Man”) continues to resonate with me. I rather suspect this old episode would and could resonate with any dozen other religious or ethnic or sexual demographics which have all experienced ostracism, shaming, or other societal tactics designed to drive us to the edges.
All I know is, the older I have gotten, the less I’ve felt any desire to be on the “right” side of things, and I am distinctly uncomfortable participating in shunnings. Especially if all we’re talking about is words. Not criminal activity. Words. Or ideas. Even ideas foreign to my own. Even people who speak ill of my church. Even things which I find morally or ethically reprehensible. I may desire to criticise the words or the ideas, but I am not eager to make the people themselves into unpersons in the manner of the old Stalinist/Leninist practices of the Marxist days of Russia. Because I myself have been unpersoned on more than one occasion, simply for who I am.
When I was a teenager I fell in love with all things Star Trek. I was impressed by the series slogan: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. I became intrigued with the Starfleet ethic of the Prime Directive, which ostensibly sought to keep the society, social values, and laws of the United Federation of Planets from overruling or dominating the social values, laws, and societies of alien worlds. What a tough job, I thought then. And I still think now. As was evidenced by the Federation’s struggle with the fictional Klingon Empire. The Klingons were a manifestation of everything the Federation stood against. So much so, the Feds often doubted there could ever be peace or brotherhood between the two nations. The Klingons were so unlike the Federation at almost every level, they continually challenged almost everyone in Starfleet to live up to the Prime Directive and the quasi-canonical belief (in the series) that all peoples and cultures had an independent validity separate and apart from that which the Federation deemed (for itself) proper, ethical, and just.
I guess I’ve always carried a bit of Star Trek with me in the years since I was a teenager. As a Mormon moving outside of Utah for the first time, I felt very much like I was entering a strange new world. Returning to Utah 14 years later I again felt I was encountering new life, and a new civilization; since I could see my birth culture with fresh eyes. Going into the military was also an exercise in encountering new people, new ideas, and especially learning to work with and get along with those people; often under stressful or harsh conditions. And I’ve been in an interracial marriage for two decades to someone who did not grow up LDS, and with whom I do not share a large degree of political overlap. Talk about boldly going! In my house, every time my wife and I sit down to discuss a given issue, if she’s talking east, I am talking west, and where she talks north, I talk south. Yet we’ve managed to learn from and love and adore each other, despite coming from different experiences with different backgrounds — sometimes, very different.
My life has therefor molded me to be suspicious of shunning, unpersoning, ostracising, and the practice of making an individual radioactive. What do I mean by radioactive? Basically it’s the idea that any person worthy of being shunned is therefore poisonous (by touch or interaction) so that anyone caught associating with or dialoguing with the shunned individual, is also going to be shunned, because now the second party is poisonous by association.
I remember the Twilight Zone episode too well. The trick of the “justice” system in that episode was to make a person radioactive (socially) and I must admit, it seemed a far harsher punishment, and much more disturbing, than throwing somebody behind bars. Even more than exile, to be a face passing through society without earning so much as a single acknowledgment — to have one’s humanity utterly obliterated — is a fate I am not sure many of us could endure without going to some very dark places in our hearts and in our heads.
If all of this seems a rather roundabout way of addressing succinctly what’s happening with the Hugo awards this year, I apologize for bending your (proverbial) ear. This topic is something I struggle to address in a few words. Other than to repeat what I said earlier: I am not a shunner or an ostracizer, and I resist the personal politics of radioactivity. I am concerned (yes, you may label me a concern troll if you must) that the people who call themselves “fandom” are eager to practice radioactivity.
Getting back to Star Trek, I feel I have a duty as a practioner of speculative fictioneering to not shun, to not turn my back, to not participate in radioactivity — however tempting it might be to do so, because I know this would be (in the short term) the far less controversial path. Perhaps if I was still 20 years old, I would choose the easier path. But at age 40 I have seen too much of this world (and too much of the human heart) to believe that shunning and radioactivity actually improve things. Because I do not believe that they do. I believe that they are . . . relics of our tribal beginnings as a human civilization. Natural and instinctual modes for dealing with the strange, the uncomfortable, the scandalous, and the bizarre.
Vox Day is deemed Untouchable. I get that. I also get that some of the things Vox Day has written have upset a lot of people. Some of the things he’s written are upsetting to me too. I think being upset by some of what Vox has written is valid. I just hope people can understand why I am not in a hurry to violate personal principles simply to go along with the zeitgeist, where Vox is concerned. I know that would be easier. I know it would also be the expected thing. Because everybody is doing it.
Sometimes, doing the expected thing isn’t always the best thing, though.