Social Cues in the Decoding of Current Events
Earlier in the week, I noticed, in a sort of vague, “oh, that’s what’s going on?” kind of way that there’s some truly epic foolishness being perpetrated. (I was a little bit distracted, as I assisted Mrs. Dave in bringing Working Title Pascoe into the world. Mommy and baby are doing fine, and everybody is tired. I may have said this before. That’s happening a lot, lately.) Jason brought it up first, that I saw. Amanda mentioned it, a bit. Kate hasn’t touched it, that I’ve seen. Probably safest for all involved. And Sarah is actively avoiding the subject, as she has books to finish. And if she goes anywhere near this one, progs will be feeling the impact sometime in the next decade or so. Weaponized wouldn’t even begin to describe it. The Int’l Lord of Hate and MadMike have both touched on this. Specifically. Incandescently.
Tim Bolgeo – Uncle Timmy to pretty much everybody – (and one of the biggest names in southern fandom) was stripped of an invitation to a particular convention because an as yet anonymous individual dug through archives of Tim’s e-zine, the Revenge of Humpday(I thought it was a newsletter. It’s not? But I find his ideas intriguing and wish to subscribe. Ah, well.) for something “offensive.” Great furor was raised, the Legion of the Perpetually Offended was marshaled and wailing and gnashing of teeth was brought before the concom. Consequently, Uncle Timmy’s invitation was rescinded. All this took about a day.
Look, this is right out of Larry’s Internet Arguing Checklist, arguably (hehe) the single most important guide to understanding how people are wrong on the interwebs. Right away, we have 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Then, the cowardly troll skipped 6 and 7 and jumped directly to 8. Since the claim of racism is more or less meaningless these days – as it’s applied by one faction to more or less everything any out-group person says or does – I almost wonder at why it’s even still used, let alone so thoroughly overused.
For this isn’t about racism, per se.
It’s about social cues, and how they’re utilized to separate sheep from goats. Tribalism is human nature. From the early early days when we likely did it as much by smell as by any other sense, we’ve worked pretty darn hard to figure out who is part of Us and who is part of Them. Race is an easy (and, frankly, illusory) cue, and – in the States, at least – becoming less and less useful as a means of discrimination. This is great, and doesn’t get celebrated nearly enough. Location has, historically, been a much bigger deal. Those folks from the next valley over are weird and do things differently than we do. Steely Dan, those great analysts of popular culture, got it exactly right in the lyrics of Barrytown:
And don’t think that I’m out of line
For speaking out for what is mine
I’d like to see you do just fine
But look at what you wear
And the way you cut your hair
It’s certain that the object of the song “ain’t from ’round here,” and that while the speaker is, well, liberal enough to tolerate their presence, he’s not going to go out of his way to actually interact with the object in a meaningful way. After all, he can “see by what you carry that you come from Barrytown.” You’re Them. Enemy, at least potentially, or historically.
The coward-in-fan’s-clothing who outted Uncle Timmy is doing the same thing, only far less honorably. This is a method the GHH Brigade and the LotPO have utilized again and again. Demonstrate that someone is Other. Make lots of noise about how evil this is (not dangerous, not bad, but evil) and then call up the specter of shunning to encourage the behavior they want. Mike Resnick is evil. OSC is evil. Tom Kratman is evil. Vox is evil. Larry is evil. Now, Uncle Timmy is evil. None of these have – so far as I know – killed anybody. The ones I know personally don’t torture small animals or children for fun. They haven’t actually advocated for genocide, outside of fiction or satire (and if you choose not to make those distinctions, think shame on yourself). And yet, a multitude have, on little to no evidence, called for violence to be done against them. At least have them ejected from “polite society.”
Odd, coming from people stridently advocating for greater diversity in fandom.
One thing we can learn from this is how societies work. As I said, and then left unsupported, this is about social cues. Progs, and their Marxist forebears, use certain shibboleths as cues of in-group-ness. Every group does that. Each tribe develops a jargon, and rituals, and we can use this to our advantage. In your writing, ensure your societies have certain pieces that distinguish them from everyone else around them. Part of this phenomenon is organic, and accretes over time. Sun-worshippers may demonstrate a penchant for gold jewelry and stone in fiery colors. A loose-knit community of asteroid miners may have a marked preference for certain brands, or a specific sublight drive technology. And always, a way of speaking that tells them that they’re part of the group.
Those are easily visible examples. More important, are demonstrated ways of thinking, and the behaviors that follow from them. Unquestioned (and often unquestionable) assumptions. “We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.” The aqueduct brings water; why ever would we want to go to the trouble of building a windmill over the well? The beastmen swarm right after the harvest. Who knows why; the gods’ ways are inscrutable. We use the plasma torch to slag salvage; who wants to learn a different way of doing things? And when a stranger – or a home-grown Odd; often treated as more or less the same thing – suggests something different, or novel, the gates close.
In writing, this is ripe for conflict, which is what we want to keep the story moving along. Is the marshall going to try to strong-arm our protagonist out of town? Will the underdog faction of the local political scene enlist our hero as their champion? It’s the drive down the main drag of town and all eyes turn to follow, and all faces are closed to analysis.
Ultimately, this kind of behavior ossifies, and a community follows tradition for its own sake, which far outweighs other concerns. This appears time and again throughout history, often right before a particular polity enters a period of upheaval. Think about the Reformation, or of Western Rome’s crumble. We’re seeing a bit of that in our own time (it’s possible this process is more or less constant) as certain groups hold ways of thinking more sacred than ways of life.
What’s the upshot? For scifi fandom, it means self-identifying factions are going to grow more and more insular as time goes on. We’re seeing this, as they justify abominable treatment of individuals who have done nothing to deserve it (in fact, who have often done a great deal for fandom, both directly and indirectly) using in-group shibboleths and the thinnest of “evidence.” On an individual level, we can continue to make choices where we’ll spend our money and energy. I plan to have nothing to do with Archon, as they’ve demonstrated a distinct lack of honor and credibility.
For writing, we can continue to learn from history. Read broadly, and glean situations ripe for plot twists. Learn to understand human nature. Who, if not the author, knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Then twist the plot. Hard. Turn a portion of society against your hero. Make their road just that much harder: drop them into a situation in which they become the Other, the “ain’t from ’round here” fella. Set the social cues against them. What happens when a sun-god’s paladin follows an evildoer into a town full of earth-goddess devotees, and blends in? What does a star marshall do in the clannish society of asteroid miners several AU from the system primary? When she publicly insulted the first-among-equals kind of leader, who also happens to be her father/uncle/whatever.
And maybe, just maybe, apply that understanding of social cues and fraught situations to the less-logical-than-fiction “real” world. Inject some logic into the rampant foolishness.