Thursday, April 16, 2015

o to be a Puppy

Leaving aside the truly toxic rantings and threats of Vox Day, the most dispiriting thing in fandom's current Puppy Wars that I've read is Sad Puppy proprietor Brad Torgersen's explanation of what he thinks is going on in the minds of his opponents.

Like almost all such attempts to discern opponents' motives, it's seriously wrong-headed. If you're a religious person, read Richard Dawkins' explanations of you; or, if you're an atheist, read the likes of Louis Markos. Either way, you'll see a massive display of Not Getting It. Torgersen isn't quite in that class, though he tries his best.

Torgersen devotes a massive amount of space towards explaining the concept of tribalism; that is, the tendency of humans to form protective groups of shared self-interest that show hostility towards outsiders. Most of this can be skimmed; the concept is not in dispute. Torgersen's final point is that he considers this an entire explanation of fannish hostility towards the Puppies. In particular, he considers complaints about the Puppy slates to be merely a distracting smokescreen for tribal hostility.

This is exactly backwards. It reminds me very much of cases where an apartment-dweller complains about the noise coming from the neighbors' apartment, where the complainer is a generic white person and the neighbor is of Ethnicity X, and the neighbor then declares that the noise complaint is merely a pretext for what's really bothering the complainer, i.e. having neighbors of Ethnicity X. Knowing Torgersen's socio-political bent, I expect that being the target of such a declaration would really frost him, yet here he is making one.

There seem to me to be two really nasty and unsupported assumptions baked into Torgersen's argument. One is this attempt to write the slate issue off as insignificant. No, it's the heart of the problem. If that isn't the issue, then why did this conflict erupt now? It isn't as if the Puppies are new; this is their third year of formal existence. And it isn't as if Puppy vs. non-Puppy opinions in fandom are new, either. As George R.R. Martin has pointed out, the substantive content of the dispute over SF is really nothing more than a continuation of arguments that date at least as far back as the Old Wave vs. New Wave of the 1960s, some of whose protagonists (Jerry Pournelle, Harlan Ellison) are still around. There have always been struggles between these groups, including over what gets on the Hugo ballot. But never before, in all of Hugo history, has there been a slate. I'm distinguishing a slate from a recommended reading list in the deliberate limitation to available slots on the ballot and the encouragement to voters to nominate those specific works. (The issue of whether the Sad and Rabid Puppies are allies or in cahoots need not be relevant here. To the extent that the Sads did not promote their list as a slate, or failed to get their nominees on the ballot, Torgersen is not responsible for the problem. Vox Day is. The conflict is still there.)

The other assumption is this casting of tribalism as if it's a bad thing. You remember the old conjugation of characterizations, "I'm strong-willed, you're stubborn, and he's pig-headed"? By the same token, it's only you who are tribal. What I have is a community. The non-Puppies very commonly talk about the fannish community, so they're quite aware of this, which is why they don't need to be lectured on what tribalism is.

But are the Puppies part of the fannish community? That's actually up to them. This is where Torgersen gets it wrong comparing the fannish community to a tribe. What the community repeatedly says is, "Everyone is welcome." What that means is, they're welcome if they want to join the community. If they want to go around denouncing the community instead, they're hardly joining it.

But joining the community does not require embracing a lot of political shibboleths. True, if you don't embrace a lot of prevailing views, you'll get a lot of arguments. But then, if you do embrace them, you'll get a lot of arguments from the fans who reject them. It's arguments either way. We argue a lot. That goes back even farther than Old Wave vs. New Wave. At the worst, we may say of a person, "He's a fugghead, but he's our fugghead." But we can also get along when those arguments aren't the topic of conversation, we can cooperate and work together on projects. As the Puppies themselves have noted, Tor and Baen, publishers with distinct and different corporate political views, both publish a lot of authors of opposing views.

This is an ideal. It doesn't always work, and even when it's working the fannish commonality can be lost in the heat. This is why George R.R. Martin pressed Larry Correia so hard for details on the hostile experiences Larry says he had at the Reno Worldcon, details that Larry was variously unable and unwilling to provide. We're not perfect. But we can't improve ourselves unless we know exactly what we're doing wrong. Nor, without that information, can we tell Larry when what he's experiencing is not rejection by the community, but argumentation within the community.

What the promulgation of the slate says is that the Puppies aren't trying to join the community. They're trying to take it over, remake it entirely in their image without any cooperation or input from those who already live there. You don't have to be consumed by tribalism to resent this. It's this attitude that is new.

Actually, it's not entirely new. Fifteen years ago, at the Worldcon in Chicago, somebody issued a sheet of paper titled "Neofans' Bill of Rights." It caused quite a stir at the time. Teresa Nielsen Hayden moderated a heated discussion forum on the program about it. It seems to have vanished from memory, except mine. When I Google the phrase, all I get is a couple of hits on me talking about it. Here's what I said about it long afterwards, but still very long ago:
At a Worldcon a few years ago, someone distributed a Neofans' Bill of Rights, which essentially called on us established fans to stop using terms and making references that neofans didn't understand, or at least explain them whenever we did, and to order our entire cultural group around the perceived preferences of neofans, rather than to suit ourselves and let others decide for themselves if they liked it too. To me the Neofans' Bill of Rights, though reasonable enough as a request for politeness, had behind it an attitude that I as a neofan would have found unbelievably arrogant and condescending. I never expected fandom to model itself to my preferences. My job was to decide if I could fit into its preferences.
That describes the attitude problem. That's what turns a request for conversational politeness into an arrogant screed. That's what turns a campaign to get more stories you like on the Hugo ballot into a hostile takeover bid. You can change fandom - fandom has been changed, many times (media fandom is now accepted to a degree unheard of 40 years ago, for instance), but it has to be changed from inside. You can't just march up and demand that it be changed.

It saddens me, because although I'm an old-time fan (when I speak of "40 years ago," I'm doing it from my own memory), I actually have a lot of agreements with the Puppies. The last time I read all the Hugo short fiction nominees was 2011. I thought the stories all, well, OK, but none of them really excited me. Only one of them, Ted Chiang's "The Life Cycle of Software Objects", can I now actually remember offhand four years later, and it wasn't even my first choice in its category. (I had problems with its structure.) I've now read three stories from the Puppy slates, and while one I found at least as uninteresting as anything in 2011, and another just didn't deserve to be on a Hugo ballot, the third - Annie Bellet's "Goodnight Stars", the one just withdrawn - I thought was clear and good and memorable storytelling, the kind I like to read. I thank the Puppies for introducing me to it, and to its author.

I even share some of the Puppies' resentments. There are leaders of the non-Puppy faction whom I consider thugs and bullies, and whom I want nothing to do with. I won't participate in their online forums. I've even written off attending future Worldcons, including Sasquan, because I so loathe the possibility that I might run into them. You can't get a more Puppy-like attitude than that. But they're part of the community, and if I don't like that, that's my problem. I'm the one who'll suffer.

But a strange thing happened on the way to my withdrawal from fandom. It came under attack. Like some previously unenthusiastic Americans after 9/11, I discovered that I'm a foul-weather patriot, a patriot of fandom. I'm still not attending Sasquan, but I bought a supporting membership, because I realized to my surprise that I really do still care about the integrity of the Hugos.

So congratulations, Brad, you've made a recruit - for the other side. A person sympathetic to your substantive issues has been driven off. Your issues giveth, and your arrogant attitude taketh away.

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