Science Fiction and Social Justice

The kerfluffles in science fiction are probably as old as fandom itself, but they’ve taken on a different tenor in recent years. Whether major ones like the Hugo hijacking or the delovecrafting of the WFA, or minor ones like “Elizabeth Bear says something,” the conflicts generally come down to a struggle between two groups, groups that sometimes get called, with deliberate inflammatoriness, Graybeards and Social Justice Warriors.

It’s not my goal to be inflammatory, so I’ll just call them the Old Guard and the Social Justice Contingent, which I hope will get the point across with a minimum of controversy. What I’ll be arguing here is that the source of most of these “wanks” is a simple culture clash between the two.

I’m going to be making broad generalizations about cultures here, and obviously they will not be universally true about every member of that culture, but I hope that by making generalizations that are true on the margin (I have no idea if I’m using this term correctly) we will eventually come to a larger truth.

I was going to say that what differentiated the cultures was an attitude on tolerance, but I’d just argued that “tolerance” is a meaningless term, so it seems perverse to start trying to invest it with meaning. Instead I’ll try to frame it as a conflict of priorities.

The Old Guard prioritizes acceptance over politeness. The Social Justice Contingent prioritizes politeness over acceptance. Please understand that I’m aware these terms are vague, so before you start objecting (“social justice is all about acceptance!”) let me clarify things.

(I should also state that although I’m trying to be even handed, I cannot conceal that I have my sympathies and prejudices. At a time in my life when I was too aspergery to be accepted by anyone who valued politeness (politeness requires an  understanding of social conventions!), fandom accepted me, and I will forever be grateful for that.)

Acceptance: The allegations about Marion Zimmer Bradley are a rare example of a recent kerfluffle that was not in the least about culture clash; they also reopened old memories and wounds about her husband, Walter Breen, a fan who was also a child molester. Breen got his due, in the sense that he died in  prison, but like many sexual predators it took a while for him to attract the legal system, and in the meantime there was the Breendoggle, the original documents of which are now available online. These are worth reading (with the obvious trigger warning) for several reasons, one of which is as evidence of how amazingly long fans allowed a child molester in their midst, a child molester in some cases staying in their very houses, with their children.

In the main Breendoggle text, a 1963 essay/mimeographed newsletter pondering what is to be done about Walter Breen, we learn that in one home the “kids were under instructions to retire into their room and barricade the door with furniture whenever Walter was in the house.”

The question arose whether Breen should be ostracized from fandom in general, or the 1964 World Con in particular. The same text (eventually settling on a recommendation for the latter) records the negative position as being, and I quote: “We’re all kooks. Walter is just a little kookier than the rest of us. Where will it all end if we start rejecting people because they’re kooky?”

This is acceptance of a radical nature that seems a little insane to us now. At the time of the Breendoggle, whether Breen was a child molester and a statutory rapist was less controversial  than whether people were morally justified in excluding a rapist from fandom. And all fandom was plunged into war.

More benignly, the text also asserts that everyone knew Breen was gay before they knew he was a child molester, and “no one cared” — an expected situation nowadays but hardly business as usual in the late ’50s, the time being referred to. Points for fandom! But this is also from that text:

“Danny also lost no opportunity of putting Walter down. I once accused him of being Square. Danny said, ‘Hell, it’s not that. You know I have homosexual friends. But I think Walter is a shit. And this is a handy club to hit him with.'”

Obviously a lot has changed, in the last half century, in attitudes towards homosexuality (the Breendoggle text itself, though ostensibly unprejudiced about sexuality, contains language that would be rightly flagged as “problematic” nowadays). But this much has not changed in fandom, at least among the Old Guard: that excluding people is very different from “clubbing” them with words. It is very different from being polite.

This is my experience with fandom: It can be filled with abrasive jerks who will say incredibly rude things to your face. But the fact that they are rude and abrasive does not mean they will not put up with you. In fact, often the whole reason these rude and abrasive people are in fandom is because people there will put up with them, too. They have nowhere else to go.

Other people, and here I mean mainstream (“mundane”) Americans as well as the Social Justice Contingent, view rudeness as an act of exclusion. This is an understandable viewpoint, and it is, as I mentioned, the mainstream one. But it is precisely here that traditional fan culture disagreed. Rudeness in traditional fan culture led to more rudeness, or to eye-rolling. Insults that would lead to fistfights anywhere else lead to a series of apa gripes. This is the fan culture I knew, and the fan culture that accepted me. If you had no social skills, such that every “normal” person you spoke with was constantly offended, it would accept you too.

The mainstreaming of science fiction — and of superheroes or video games or whatever other nerd specialties you like (although these are of course different subcultures) — and the resulting influx of fans who came to nerdery from outside of fan culture have lead to an inevitable culture clash between those who find rudeness unforgivable and those who find it merely regrettable. Perhaps, over time, a rapprochement could have been reached. But there was a complicating factor.

I want to stress that I’m not trying to assign blame here. Instead, I’m trying to make wild generalizations about different subcultures. And the defining characteristics, at least from an outside perspective, of the subculture of Social Justice are:

  1. a very tight focus on politeness, where politeness means adhering to a series of shifting but precise linguistic social norms
  2. the immediate ostracism (often formally, by legal or legalistic means) of those who fail to apply these norms correctly.

There are benefits to this culture of course — although critics tend to highlight its most absurd applications, in theory it genuinely benefits those who are harmed by insulting language, including people who would never be able to participate in a community that tolerated such language. It is a minor variation on mainstream American culture, and should in a better world lead to a society in which polite people watch what they say, and only those recidivists who are unable to conform are cast out.

Of course, “recidivists who are unable to conform” were once the majority of fandom, and it is unclear where they’re supposed to go if they are excluded — literally excluded and forbidden to participate — from their traditional sanctuary. But it is a zero-sum game, and someone has to lose.

I recently read Kameron Hurley’s Geek Feminist Revolution, which I didn’t really like, but I was struck by how closely she adhered to the standards of one of these cultures, as outlined above.  (I gave the book to someone else after I read it, so I’m limited to quoting from memory here.)

Hurley offers a parable in which a toddler attempts to punch his mother and gets chastised (there’s more to it that, but that’s the relevant portion). She connects this situation to rude or insensitive people who are justly chastised for their behavior. Here she makes the assumption, which will make sense to the Social Justice Contingent but not to the Old Guard, that punching someone is analogous to  speaking rudely. Whether there is or is not an unplumbable chasm between words and violence depends on your subculture here.

If the membrane between words and violence (I switched up metaphors) is easily breached, then it makes sense that the act of chastisement in these situations should veer away from verbal criticism, or even insults, to real-world punishments. When Mark Oshiro was offended by speech on a diversity panel, his response was to report the offenders to the “authorities” (such as they were) in the hopes that his co-panelsits would, among other things, “not be allowed” (his words) on certain panels in the future. This is a request for enforceable ostracism, and makes perfect sense from a Social Justice standpoint, but not from an Old Guard standpoint, to whom this is the most heinous of crimes.

Fandom’s recent emphasis on convention harassment policies can be understood as a desire to codify a series of cultural codes that I’ve been calling “politeness” and to formalize real-word penalties for those who will not or cannot conform to them. From one point of view, harassment policies create safe spaces where people are not allowed to hurt each other with words; from another, harassment policies create dangerous spaces where the “kooky” are punished for their kookiness.

Understanding all this, what is to be done? Some of the Social Justice Contingent that I know have been celebrating the fact that the Old Guard, being old, will “all die soon,” ending all conflict; but let’s assume those utopian dreams are the dreams of outliers. Can more reasonable people help the situation?

Well, at the very least people of the Old Guard should understand that the Social Justice Contingent is not just a bunch of vengeful crybabies, but are applying their cultural norms, encouraging everyone to behave better by punishing those who transgress.

People of the Social Justice Contingent  should understand that the Old Guard is not just a bunch of insensitive bigots, but are applying their own cultural norms, enduring bad or annoying behavior under the assumption that their own behavior will be endured; all in the name of acceptance.

Members of the Social Justice Contingent have often remarked that the Old Guard is touchy about social justice-based criticism. They may benefit from understanding that the Old Guard is often touchy because they are afraid that they are about to be punished — literally punished, and in a space they thought was “safe.” Not safe from offense or criticism, but safe from punishment.

It’s always possible nothing I’ve said here not help, or that the two sides are just too different to coexist; but at the very least identifying the problem leaves open the possibility of running two sets of parallel fandoms, each with its own conventions, without each fandom labeling the other a hate crime or a thought police state.

Or we can just keep screaming at each other, self-righteously, until normal people, realizing they like space adventure and special effects, come to our conventions in sufficient numbers that they can beat us to death while we’re still fighting among ourselves.

(Another discussion of culture classes and the nerd community, one I found very insightful, can be found here.)

One comment

  1. […] One of the best explanations of fandom is that it is a ‘safe space’ for people who weren’t very popular anywhere else.  The nerds, the geeks, the people who played D&D when the [insert long rant about jocks and mean girls here] were marginalised everywhere else, so they built fandom so they’d have a place of their own.  Like all such communities, it grew in ways its creators – insofar as it had creators – didn’t anticipate.  Now, science-fiction and fantasy fandom can be divided into two separate factions, as outlined by this post: […]


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