Brad R. Torgersen

The Mote in Gernsback’s Eye

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I’ve said before that it usually doesn’t matter how much a conservative shouts or points at a problem with liberal behavior, the liberals usually don’t pay any attention until another liberal sees the same problem, and speaks up. This is because liberals (and conservatives often, too) — in the United States — have trained themselves to be so cynical about the thoughts and motives of the other side, they will immediately discount any information flowing from an “enemy” source. Everyone is forever on the alert for “concern trolling” and nobody wants to budge an inch, if it means admitting that maybe something might be wrong in friendly territory.

Excerpted below are the comments of the current Vice President of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America — SFWA.

NOTE: I walked out of that organization after they expelled Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg from the pages of the SFWA Bulletin, for what essentially amounted to word crime. I decided I didn’t want any part of a so-called writers’ union that would treat two of its senior members so shabbily, over a matter which can only be described as thought-policing. I haven’t paid much attention to SFWA since then.

But Ms. Hogarth’s words struck a chord with me — they should, for any conservative who’s toiled in these spec fictional prose mines over the past 25 years. I said it last weekend: the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy does not like conservatives, nor libertarians, all that much. Being a conservative or libertarian (aka: classically liberal) in SF/F, in the year 2016, is akin to operating in enemy territory. Not because you’re out to get them as much as they’re certainly out to get you. Unless you can run silent, and run deep. Showing your cards — forcing them to admit that you exist — comes with a host of potential repercussions. You’ve definitely got to make up your mind about how you’re going to sail your way through this strange little ocean Hugo Gernsback dubbed “scientifiction.”

I attended a con once where the toastmaster said that they wanted all conservatives to “hurry up and die and leave the planet to the rest of us. No wait, they can stay as long as we can have their money.” And people applauded. That person wasn’t kicked out of the convention. They were feted and congratulated while I sat in the audience, pale and trembling, listening to the people around me cheer my demise. I have never, ever forgotten that moment. Or all the threatening ones after, both generalized or intimate, like the man who leaned into my face and told me the world would be better off without me and people like me. No one stepped in to tell him that he shouldn’t say such things. The people standing around us just nodded or smiled. One of them even said before leaving, “Your time is over. We don’t need you anymore, [expletive here].”

The mandarins of SF/F expend a lot of energy wrapping themselves in the flag of tolerance. But as any conservative can tell you, that tolerance runs pretty much one-way. A tolerance conversation (liberal to conservative) in SF/F often goes like this, “Hello, I am a tolerant caring compassionate liberal, and you’re not. You will sit there and politely listen to all of my ideas and theories, and not say a word. I will sit here and listen to all of your ideas and theories, and then I will explain to you why you’re a dirty bigot and a hater and an evil human being. We will both agree I am right, and you will apologize for being bad.”

That, dear friends, is how “tolerance” works in SF/F at this time.

I’ve discussed this at length with Orson Scott Card — he being well acquainted with the tolerance charade — and he says it didn’t used to be like this before 1980. Oh, to be sure, there were plenty of fans, authors, and editors on the left-wing side of the aisle. But it wasn’t so vindictive, nor so personal. You could sit at a table with conservatives, liberals, anarchists, libertarians, and have a rousing verbal melee of competing ideas, but at the end of it, you’d still be able to shake hands, and walk away comrades in the field. That began to change (perhaps not coincidentally) about the time Ronald Reagan took his seat in the Oval Office. Gradually, in dribs and drabs, the dominant left-wing culture of SF/F has traded in true tolerance, for a kind of totalitarian double-think 1984 version of tolerance — people and ideas labeled ‘intolerant’ don’t have to be tolerated. In 2016, with tender snowflakes floating around in SF/F like it’s a mild blizzard, anyone can be labeled ‘intolerant’ for any reason, logical or not. Because anyone can claim to be a Victim (caps v) and in the new vernacular of Social Justice Zealotry, the Victim is always right and always wins. Always.

What this means is that common law assumption of innocence — the foundation for Enlightenment justice as practiced in the United States for over two hundred years — has been replaced (in the culture of SF/F) with a totalitarian law of default guilt. When a Victim says you have “aggressed” in some fashion, you are automatically at fault. In fact, if you’re unfortunate enough to possess “privileged” demographics, your very existence is an aggression. You must put on your scarlet letter P and show the world that you are willing to atone for your sin of privilege, and call out those around you for their privilege too. Again, all of this rests on a totalitarian law of default guilt.

Not surprisingly, default guilt breeds an environment where compassion and generosity shrivel away to nothingness.

I’ll say it twice, for emphasis: default guilt breeds an environment where compassion and generosity shrivel away to nothingness.

What do I mean by that? Look at Ms. Hogarth’s example. A compassionate person does not openly wish for a broad segment of the population to die — whether it was a joke or not — and a compassionate audience does not applaud such a statement. There is also zero generosity in the declaration, “We don’t need you anymore, your time is over, bitch.” Ms. Hogarth was cast in the role of villain merely for being who she is. As the villain, she was not accorded the regard even a child might be accorded. Villains don’t deserve regard. Villains deserve scorn, disdain, insults, and worse.

I have occasionally read and heard rebuttals along the lines of, “Well if conservatives and libertarians weren’t so selfish, terrible, hateful, and bigoted, we wouldn’t have to insult them!”

Again, the totalitarian assumption of guilt. It doesn’t matter how the default villain has comported herself. The villain is the villain is the villain. And villains are fair game for all kinds of atrocious and genuinely aggressive (usually, passive aggressive) behavior that tolerant liberals themselves would never countenance; if it were directed at them, or their fellow ideological travelers.

More from Ms. Hogarth:

I am all for a more civilized fandom. I am all for us being kinder to one another, and striving to understand each other’s viewpoints, experiences, and beliefs. I give people the benefit of the doubt, and because of that, I’ve enjoyed friendships with a broad gamut of people, all of whom have taught me a great deal and brought me a great deal of joy. But if we’re going to slap people on the wrists for microaggression, can we please start playing fair? Can we go after the person at the con who made knowing comments to the audience about flyover states? Can we talk to the person who was preaching radical feminist philosophy as if it was the only sensible philosophy until I said, quietly, “I’m sorry. I’m not on board with most of that.” Can we stop the toastmasters wishing that half the population would die in a fire (and leave their wealth to them)? Is my excessive discomfort also important? What about all my conservative or religious friends, and the fans who have quietly told me the only place they feel safe is in my social media spaces? What about the fans who have even more quietly told me they don’t feel safe ever?

I find this sentiment plausibly risable. It seems like the voice of grown-upness, pleading for sanity. “Can we all please just try to treat each other a little better? Please??”

I could only add that the solution to all of this, is not to police the left-wing (on matters of “microagression”) to the same degree that the right-wing has been policed. The solution is to reevaluate the entire concept of “aggression” and “microagression.” Again, what happened to common-law assumption of innocence? We need to get back to it. Do not assume intent to harm. Set the bar (for proof of harm) high, and keep it high. Good lord, do we really want twin competing blizzards of tender snowflakes, all flying into each other and running to authority figures to “fix” the issue? Like a pack of sore-faced first graders endlessly tattling to teacher?

I was raised to believe that a real grown-up can take a few things on the chin. I was also raised to believe that a real grown-up can laugh at himself on occasion. The totalitarian assumption of guilt removes vital flexibility from our interactions. Everyone winds up expecting and seeking to discover (s)he has been harmed, and everyone is on the defensive against accusations of same. This kafka-esq nightmare of human relations permits almost no compassion, nor humility. When both pride and ego have been refined to the point of glass fragility, the slightest knock can cause shatteringly overblown reactions.

So, rather than degrade the state of dialogue, we need to promote thicker skins as well as greater honesty. I don’t want liberals being too scared to speak their minds. If somebody wishes I would go away and just die, I may not like the sentiment, but at least I know where the person stands. I am tough enough to hear those words, and I know the viewpoint from which they spring. It’s the viewpoint of moral surety. Scaring liberals into never speaking their moral surety does not end the moral surety. It merely drives them into echo chambers behind closed doors, where they can speak and share that surety in safe company; people who won’t run and tattle to teacher.

And if both conservatives and liberals only ever spend their time among like minds, behind closed doors, inventing monocultural spaces for themselves where they only ever have to hear and speak the same thoughts about the same ideas . . . well, we’re pretty much there already. In SF/F and also the culture at large. Social media has allowed us to run around inside the heads of other people, and we’re horrified by what we find there. Perhaps the liberals of SF/F believe that SF/F conventions (like Worldcon) ought to be places where they can feel safe verbally wishing for the deaths of conservatives? Forgetting that conservatives, too, are part of the fabric of SF/F? Whether SF/F’s liberals like it or not.

One wonders what old Mr. Gernsback might make of the situation — he who originally intended for “scientifiction” to be a literature that interested children in STEM careers. I am not sure Gernsback had any asterisks attached to that desire, political or otherwise.

Still more, from Ms. Hogarth:

Should I discuss at length all the times I have had this prejudice applied to me, not only at conventions, but in my career? Should I tell you about the time someone told me I “belong in the Baen gutter, with all the other troglodytes?” If this wasn’t a systemic prejudice, I wouldn’t bring it up. If we didn’t belong to a fandom that claims to desire diversity, I wouldn’t bring it up. But it’s both, and I am here bringing a warning: all the moderate conservatives — which constitute the majority — who do care about the rights of their friends, no matter their identities, are being driven away. Soon SF/F will find itself in an echo chamber, without any way to build bridges to the people who will increasingly see them as enemies. I don’t want that to happen. That’s why I continue to quietly point out that we can’t foster an environment of real safety without including people we disagree with. Because without exposure to one another, it’s too easy to demonize each other.

Three or four years ago, a fellow author lamented — in a discrete conversation among mixed company — that she had to suppress and hide a significant portion of her identity, in order to avoid causing trouble in SF/F. Because she knew her religiously-couched beliefs about a hot-button political topic would make her persona non grata with fellow authors, and also editors. She was crying when she said it. She knew she was baring her soul to a potentially hostile audience. At the risk of using a shopworn phrase, I felt her pain. Quite deeply. About a dozen years ago, it became apparent to me that if I truly wanted to become a “player” in SF/F I would have to learn to mask my beliefs. Either hide them, or pretend (in the company of fellow professionals) that my beliefs were contra to what I actually think and feel. About economics. About how societies and human beings function. About God, and the immortality of human essence. About sex and sexuality. About any number of things. It would all have to be shoved far back into the closet, and kept there. Otherwise, I was going to piss off a lot of people.

A few years later, having broken into the field — and having also failed spectacularly to keep my trap shut — a trusted mentor engaged in what can only be described as an impromptu intervention. To his credit, all of his logic was business-sound: when you are open about your beliefs, you risk alienating part of your audience, as well as part of your professional cohort. So why talk about it? Isn’t the golden rule to never discuss religion or politics? Because this conversation almost always ends in disaster?

My mentor made excellent sense, then. He still makes excellent sense now. And if the field of SF/F were a field that abided the golden rule across the board I am quite sure I’d not feel the need to bang my pot to the extent that I’ve been banging it. Bless my poor mentor, I know he gets an eye-twitch now, if ever my name is brought up in conversation. He knows he’s gonna have to hear it, about me. And he’s tired of deflecting, or making apologia. I don’t blame him.

But then, that’s precisely why I can’t let it go. Why should he have to deflect, or offer apologia? Why should Ms. Hogarth have to sound the alarm, about moderate conservatives being driven out of SF/F? Why should my fellow author — who cried tears of genuine anguish — have to suppress or cloak who she is, just to get along in this field? Why should any of us have to fear repercussions simply for thinking or expressing opinions or ideas that other people in SF/F disagree with?

“Stop thinking and speaking bad ideas, and we won’t have to be jerks to you!” shout the defenders of the status quo.

Ah, yes. The time-honored excuse of all abusers: you made us do it. There was a fair amount of that talk, directly following the farcical 2015 Hugo awards ceremony. And I’ve made no bones about the fact that I think the mandarins of SF/F self-inflicted a very deep, perhaps irrecoverable wound. But even that wound is merely a symptom of the bigger problem. Of the cultural and intellectual rot which has settled over SF/F and is presently intensifying.

Nobody on the “other side” has to give a damn what I say or write.

But they ought to give a damn about what Ms. Hogarth says and writes.

This is a key officer in the field, putting the field on notice. That the rot must not continue without remedy. I may disagree with her style of remedy, but there must be a remedy. At some stage SF/F’s self-styled liberals must force themselves to look into the eyes of those whom they despise, and find humanity there.

Otherwise, SF/F is going to entirely balkanize. It may have balkanized already? A kind of ethnic cleansing, wherein the “bad people” are at last revealed, and driven from the hall of righteous purity. Leaving SF/F a shell of its former self. Unable to grapple with the most basic of all scientifiction concepts: that there are minds which think as well as yours, just differently.

If there was ever a time when that maxim was carved into the stone archway over the door to the hall, it’s since been chiseled out, and replaced by a cheap plastic placard that says: SAFE SPACE. The door itself is now festooned with blinking orange hazard lights and gobs of yellow-and-black caution tape. Abandon all differences, ye who enter here. Diversity has become a skin-deep game of demographics and Victim-identity fetishization. The totalitarian culture of guilt is omnipresent. You can’t go a week in this field without some poor author or editor being called out, shamed, shunned, castigated, and verbally burned at the stake — for infractions of impiety or heresy.

Scientifiction — the literature which ought to, above all other things, pride itself on free inquiry and the publishing and expression of “dangerous” ideas — has fallen into a spiritual and ideological gutter of same-thinkery, restrictions on speech and expression, and the routine punishing of “evil doers” who cannot or will not conform to expected orthodoxy.

Again, the left-wing side doesn’t have to give a damn what I say or write.

But if enough people like Ms. Hogarth have the courage to tell the truth, maybe things can change?

One has to hope.

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