I don’t normally do guest posts, but I saw Chuck Gannon at a con last month and he asked if I would be willing to post this essay. There are parts I agree with, parts I disagree with, and there are a few bits where I think Chuck’s take is completely wrong, but the reason I’m posting this is because somebody dared him to post it on a Puppy blog to see our reaction.
Well, okay then.
I didn’t bother to read the comments Chuck linked to, but I hear they are a hoot.
It will help to have some context on the origin of this essay—which I never anticipated writing beforehand.
On August 31 of this year, I posted the following on Facebook:
My thought for the day:
Choose your battles carefully.
If you find yourself constantly in combat, you’re not being choosy enough.
Or you’ve decided that you are actually at war. Which means that you are now committed to destruction, not discourse.
No value judgments implied, but it was a call for courteous self-awareness when in discourse, and, more directly, a kind of diagram of what our discursive behavior tells us about our deepest motivations: are we talking to communicate or do battle? At no point do I imply that battle is always avoidable, or even wrong; just that it’s important to know when you’ve crossed the line, and what that really means.
On the same day, I learned that John Scalzi (who has always been friendly and polite to me) had mentioned my novel Trial By Fire (favorably) on his blog. He wrote that, “Also, I think it’s possible that some Puppy nominees could have gotten onto the ballot on their own steam — in the novel category Chuck Gannon has been nominated for a Nebula two times running, so I think he could have had a decent chance at the Hugo.”
I contacted John to say thanks, but to also offer a differing opinion. My own take was that despite being a Nebula finalist, I wasn’t well enough known, and the novel hadn’t had enough fan buzz, to get a Hugo nomination without the Puppy exposure.
In the course of talking about the Hugos, I mentioned the post I referred to above and the wide and multipartisan affinities it had elicited. Our exchanges inspired me to explicate the reasoning behind that post, and before I knew it, an essay had been created. I let John read it, giving him the yea or nay to post it on his blog. He elected to do so, warning me that he could foresee it not getting a particularly warm reception, and did I really want to go ahead with it?
Principle means we do things not in the anticipation of any particular perception, but because they are right. I thought that this essay—which does not engage the rights or wrongs of the current genre divide but merely assesses the long-term costs of how the debate is being conducted—might do some good.
Its reception is a matter of record which you can consult if you wish: just read the comments and my responses that follow the essay itself. Some of the comments can only be characterized as irate dares that I post this on a “Puppy” site and see what sort of reaction it would get there. So, since Larry graciously offered to host the essay also, that is precisely what I am doing here.
I have included the link to the essay and the reader responses so that everything may be seen in its complete and original context: no alterations of any kind can be asserted, since you are viewing the original itself.
I do not anticipate responding to any comments here, not because I am uninterested in them, but because I am currently working on another novel in the same series as Trial By Fire (and the recently released Raising Caine), as well as a novel in the naval space opera series that launched David Weber’s and Steve White’s careers, the Starfire universe. I need every minute I’ve got for those projects–and we all know how addictive exchanges on the interwebz can become.
I wish you all well, and I thank my friend Larry Correia for agreeing to host this introductory statement along with the link to the closed-comment essay (entitled “Ends, Means, and Arsonists—Or—The Importance of Saying ‘Yes’ to Civility While Saying ‘No’ to Passivity”) on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog.
Top of Form
Ends, Means, and Arsonists
The Importance of Saying “Yes” to Civility While Saying “No” to Passivity
Dr. Charles E. Gannon
I contacted my host, John Scalzi, a few days ago, just after he mentioned one of my books here in the following manner: “Also, I think it’s possible that some Puppy nominees could have gotten onto the ballot on their own steam — in the novel category Chuck Gannon has been nominated for a Nebula two times running, so I think he could have had a decent chance at the Hugo.”
This was indeed a kind mention because (and here’s the part where I slit my own throat) I can’t fully agree with John’s generous assessment. Don’t get me wrong: I wish I could agree—but I suspect that it was the Sad Puppy listing which put me on enough folks’ radars so that my novel Trial By Fire wound up just 11 votes behind Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem in the total number of Hugo nominations. This is not a comment on the relative merits of my (or any other) Hugo-eligible novel. I simply observe that the odds are good that Trial By Fire did not have enough widespread buzz to climb that high all by itself. On the other hand, Trial by Fire was the only SP-recommended novel that did not make the Hugo ballot. It was also the only SP-recommended novel not included on Vox Day’s authoritarian slate. I will let you decide if there might be some relationship between those two data points…
As many know, my presence on the SP recommendation list came as a surprise; I did not learn about it until a few days (a week?) later, when someone commented on it on my FB account. Perceiving it as a list akin to dozens I’d seen floated during Hugo and Nebula seasons since I first became an SFWA member in 1990 (I think), the one concern I voiced to Brad (Torgerson) was that I was only comfortable being included if Vox Day (whose proclivities were known to me only via general third-hand report) was not on the list. Which he wasn’t. So then I went back to work (I’m fortunate to have a number of novels under contract) and pretty much stopped following the Hugo process. (I’m the parent-on-call for four kids, so I don’t browse FB feed much and sometimes wonder why I even have a Twitter account…)
When I learned about the Rabid Puppies and Vox Day’s activities (which prompted my research into the details of his prior commentaries upon race, women, and more), I contacted Brad and we agreed that everyone must follow their own conscience if push came to shove. I should add, for the record, that I not only respect fellow-novelist Marko Kloos immensely for the choice he made, but I also understand what may have been his instinct not to add to the unfortunate spectacle until and unless circumstances made it incumbent upon him to do so.
However, although my inclusion on the original Sad Puppy list probably brought votes my way, a countervailing trend among another discernible (if non-collectivized) group of readers probably took as many (or more) away. Specifically, during both the Hugo and Nebula process, many blog posts, or comments thereupon, explicitly proclaimed their decision to ignore my novel for a reason expressed with admirable economy by one of their number: “Because: Baen.”
In response to all of this, I can only repeat what I have said about awards from the very start, thus echoing what my host John Scalzi penned here not so long ago: “Vote for what you like.” And, I might add: “Don’t judge books by their covers or publishers.” Most of the major spokespersons in this debate have said just this or something quite similar.
Happily, most people consider these admirable sentiments, but almost as many will wonder, “Yeah, sure, but how the hell do we get to that reality from where we are now?” Or, to use Chernechevsky’s SFnal title (which Lenin appropriated for his famous essay), “What is to be done?” The context of that query invokes, of course, a challenge to discover, articulate, and strategize the attainment of the ends one seeks. I, on the other hand, have come to suspect that in our present quandary, our first agenda item must be to explore the means whereby we may communicate effectively about those challenges. In short, my concern is best titled “How is it to be done?”
Methods and Means
If you can’t communicate effectively, you can’t solve problems—not unless your “problem” is waging a war to utterly exterminate your opponent. So, if you do want to communicate, then as long as words are being wielded as weapons, the downward spiral—of this conflict and of our genre—will continue.
So my focus has been, and remains, on behavior not politics. That may sound like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but I see it as making sure the rudder works. By which I mean: at some point, people have to talk if they wish to end, limit, or deal with the aftermath of a conflict. Right now, the capacity for genuine communication is crashing in a dizzying tailspin, while attitude polarization is on an inversely proportional rise.
Let me be perfectly clear, I’m neither “puppy” nor “anti-puppy.” My own beliefs are so darn eclectic that I doubt any group would have me. But beyond that, there is this purely functional consideration: any resolution to a conflict (short of unilateral annihilation) cannot be achieved through strident advocacy for or by any one side.
Why? The answer is one of the most consistent and simple phenomena of social dynamics, one as old as history itself. You cannot be primarily committed to facilitating equable and balanced communication and be a partisan leader.
I am a communication specialist, have worked in that role in various capacities for over 30 years, and have seen (and been asked to help manage) this phenomena in many different scenarios. And here’s the relevant challenge that arises: partisans have the luxury to remain absorbed by (and locked into) their conflicts of the moment. So, they cannot become change-agents for better bilateral discourse; their prior role precludes opponents from believing that they are doing anything but surreptitiously supporting their own agenda. So it is necessary to preserve and/or create a communications channel for moving beyond the conflicts in which those partisans are still engaged. A truly multilateral discursive arena—for which civility is both the bedrock and cornerstone—is the foundation and lynchpin of that eventual need.
I do care about hurt feelings, but that’s simply not my reason for emphasizing the issue of civility and respect in discourse. Indeed, feelings are not merely important but operationally relevant because, when people’s feelings are hurt, they are primed to strike back–and so, the possibility of increasing civility remains near or at zero. But this is not a hand-wringing, mewling appeal for “oh, can’t we all just be nice to each other?” This is more of a “Look: when everyone is done thumping their chests and mixing up their genuine beliefs, their admitted and unadmitted ego involvement, and all the rest of the emotional and rhetorical baggage, we’re all still going to be here. If this was a literal war, you might decide to exterminate each other. But since it’s not, you’re going to have to coexist, because you can’t steer around each other far enough to create total mutual avoidance. So some people have to keep saying: ‘when all of you are ready to clean up the mess, remember how to talk to each other. Because that is the only way the mess is going to be cleaned up. No matter who declares victory and goes home.’”
To reprise a theme that I’ve seen on posts from commentators as diverse as David Gerrold, Brad Torgerson, and Eric Flint, the descent into personal invective always portends a downward spiral that carries us away from ideas and understanding and straight into a cesspool of inane and profitless rock throwing. And “but they started it first” is no excuse for any side to maintain their vituperation level at Defcon 2. Indeed, there is every reason not to.
Firstly, it’s rarely a good idea to let the actions of another dictate the manner in which we respond. To do otherwise is to essentially say, “I accept that I do not define the means by which I engage in conflicts; I cede that initiative and authority to my opponent.” As we all know, it’s not a good idea to let anyone else drive your life-bus or set the pace—least of all someone you perceive as an opponent.
Secondly, when it comes to the notion of matching your opponent’s dirty tactics or railery with your own, … Well, departing from your own game plan or ethical rules of engagement is only worth considering when the stakes are so high that the benefits strongly outweigh the deficits. I can think of real wars (Cold and otherwise) where matching escalation was essential to maintain whatever balance remained in the conflict. But are the desperate, end-of-the-world cost-to-benefit ratios which informed those scenarios really present here?
Lastly, since mutual name-calling only achieves mutual mud-wallowing, there is no argumentative advantage to be gained by it. At most, invective and mockery might incense your adversary (i.e.; if they’re stupid and easily distracted). But unless you firmly believe that their rage will cause them to a ) act rashly, and that b) you will be able to decisively exploit that intemperance, it’s not a worthwhile tactic.
But let’s be honest. None of these “reasons” explain the verbal vitriol that has been fuming like Old Faithful (Old Fateful?), lo these many months. Name calling is usually just a way of venting one’s overloaded spleen. It’s a verbal smack in a childish slapping war, like the ones waged between testy siblings in the back seat during a roadtrip to some hated destination (an analogy employed to great effect by Eric Flint during one if his epic excurses on this very topic).
So that’s why my concern is with how the discourse is conducted. Yes, there are always going to be arguments and debates, some more ferocious than others. And some burn themselves out. But some go on for longer, and do far more damage, than they must. And that typically happens when a debate starts falling under the real (or perceived) rhetorical influence of radical extremists like Vox Day or Requires Hate. Because although they might sound like they are deeply invested in the debate, their involvement is motivated by other objectives.
Specifically, lots of people have been shouting loudly on either side of this issue, most of them very impassioned about protecting the enjoyment they derive from our genre. But the radical extremist has a different objective, which often betrays itself in their subtly different modus operandi. Whereas the impassioned partisans want their side to win, the extremist wants to effect change by burning the extant structures to the ground.
I worry that the state of discourse in our genre could easily play into that long term result. Not because of the differing opinions among our genre’s various partisans but because of the lack of civility, which undermines fair and clear communication. Invective and insult has greased the slide down into today’s growing midden heap of rhetorical excesses, sloppy evidence gathering, and hasty presumptions of guilt-by-association. And these cascading failures in reasonable discourse are the tinder with which radical extremists may easily fuel the conflagrations whereby our genre’s structures might consume themselves.
Arsonists Among Us
I offer you this conceptual equation as the formulae whereby cultural pyromaniacs have historically created group- (or nation-) consuming infernos:
+ incivility ->
+ dehumanization ->
+permission for violent response ->
+radicalization and extremism
This is a proven recipe for quickening passionate partisans into aggressive zealots. When advocates forsake their initial behavioral limits, they have started down a path in which their ends have begun to justify means they would not have countenanced earlier. And so they are on their way to becoming radicalized extremists.
We are familiar enough with the early warning signs of this dynamic at work, and which, cast in the taxonomies of our genre, equate to:
1) increasing numbers of SF & F readers becoming infected with the same virus of polarization now endemic in so many other parts of our culturescape;
2) name-calling, mockery, and personal invective that becomes so ubiquitous that it no longer stands out as arresting or unusual;
3) increasingly strident and absolutist rhetoric, often accompanied by a reflex to screen for “correct think vs. wrong think” semantics.
I don’t propose to have any sweeping answer for how to reverse this trend. (That would make me yet another strident advocate, wouldn’t it?). Rather, I perceive the answer to be ultimately personal: a conscience-informed attempt to balance what one intended to convey with how it was received. In short, to temper oneself without muzzling oneself.
My own answer is to keep talking amiably with people from all over the spectrum, regardless of however different (or not) our opinions may be. Consequently, lots of the folks I’ve spoken with over the last six months will not find the content of this post surprising and have expressed sympathy for larger or smaller parts of it. The list includes people such as Larry Correia, David Gerrold, Brad Torgerson, John Scalzi, Rachel Swirsky, and Eric Flint, just to name a few. And if anything strikes me as even more prevalent than the differences of opinion and perception among the dozens of people with whom I’ve chatted, it is the degree to which the “sides” do not understand each other. Which, given America’s contemporary culturescape, is not really surprising.
Specifically, there is an increasing paucity of shared experience in America. The present cultural volatility and churn, which goes well beyond the demographic reshuffling of relative measures of social power, produces a situation in which persons from different outlooks and experiences are likely to attach subtly or even significantly different meanings to many of the same words and labels.
What place does this thumbnail comparative cultural analysis have in this post about civility in rhetoric? It may not be as tangential as it seems, because these underlying cultural divides aid and abet the reflex toward Othering. When it comes to forming opinions about persons from an opposing set of experiences and values, it requires much less of a push to tip us over into negativity and dehumanization. So when “the American experience” is as howlingly different for two groups as it is for what media pundits now often refer to as the urbanite vs. fly-over dyad, frictions are primed.
So, if there are indeed significant cultural differences that are informing the underlying topography of the friction in our genre, that also explains why neither side needs to employ conspiracies or complicated plotting to achieve what might seem like a monolithic consensus. After all, each group already speaks its own language, has its own behavioral codes and cues, and its own sense what constitutes praiseworthy cultural products. It’s hardly surprising that their aesthetic preferences and values are. in so many ways. almost wholly misunderstood by each other.
Yet here’s the challenge this puts before us: when you meet a person from a different culture, you have to be more civil and you have to listen harder and more carefully, if (a big if) you want to understand and be understood. And you must also be prepared to step back enough from your own cultural values to see that many of them are not objectively correct, but conditional to the experience that gave rise to them. Then, when you turn that same dispassionate lens upon the Other, you may begin to see the world as they do through their eyes. (I think I’m starting to channel Margaret Mead.)
Unfortunately, no single act is so likely to result in one’s being ejected from one’s own group as the process I outlined above, because few things threaten group cohesion as much as questioning its self-defining narratives. Which of course include the narrative of the Evil Other. Yet somewhere between excessive and insufficient empathy, somewhere between unacceptable gradualism and insupportably rapid transformation, there is a happy medium…which will paradoxically not make anyone truly happy.
But that is in the nature of compromise and coexistence. And as long as we’re arguing over transformation, we’re still engaging worthwhile issues. Every genuine conflict that ends in something other than absolute expulsion or extermination of one side means that we have affirmed our ability to move back from the pendulum swings of vituperation, anger and rage into a modus vivendiwhere two parties can speak to each other and resolve (or at least reduce) the aggression and animus dominating the situation. If this were not possible, discussion and negotiation would be delusionally pointless activities. And if you already hold that grim belief, then I am sorry for having wasted your time with these words.
Some Closing Words About Words
Many people have uttered or asserted many questionable things throughout the entirety of the 2015 Hugo process. Some people have uttered or asserted some arresting ideas and personal attacks. Only a very few have routinely employed the radicalized extremist’s cant to frequently advance propositions or characterizations that are outrageous or horrific. But to the extent that our genre’s discourse tolerates the articulation of atrocity, or continues to wallow in the vitriol that greases the slide toward greater dehumanization and Othering, the social arsonists can hope for new recruits, new zealots. That’s what makes voices like those of Vox Day and Requires Hate so dangerous: their objective is to use our own worst impulses as the means to bring about the destruction of the SF&F community and many of its institutions.
I appreciate being given this space, and you having taken the time to navigate this conceptual slalom. By way of offering a quick, value-neutral take-away, the spirit of these comments were synopsized in a recent, much-shared post of mine on Facebook. It is simply a conceptual barometer whereby we may assess our discursive behaviors:
A thought for the day:
Choose your battles carefully.
If you find yourself constantly in combat, you’re not being choosy enough.
Or you’ve decided that you are actually at war. Which means that you are now committed to destruction, not discourse.
I believe that if we insist on civility (as distinct from passivity), we will hasten our climb out of this discursive tailspin and enhance our collective ability to celebrate SF & F, regardless of its source or style.