The Difficulty with Political Diversity

At the last Worldcon, there was a panel whose title I liked, but which I did not want to attend because the panelists lacked diversity. The title of the panel was: “Ideology versus Politics in Science Fiction”. It caught my eye, because I follow politics closely. The description ended with a very good question, asking how politics might be represented in SF in an authentic way, whilst remaining interesting to readers. But then I saw who was on the panel. Whilst I had no objection to any specific individual, I thought there was a big problem with the panel’s composition. This was the panel:

  • Teresa Nielsen Hayden, moderator
  • Martin McGrath
  • Laurie Penny
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I dislike labelling other people’s political beliefs. Political views can be complicated, and labels encourage unhelpful generalization. The left-right spectrum is a crude way to allocate beliefs to individuals, and people should speak for themselves. But for those of you who may be unfamiliar with some of the names listed, let me succinctly characterize their views in ways that I believe are fair to them. To do that, I will try to draw on facts about the individual, as opposed to anyone else’s opinions about them.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden is an American editor. She started a popular weblog described as “liberal to libertarian” per its Google entry.

Martin McGrath is a British academic. In a recent blog, he identified with the “task” facing the British Labour Party if it is to win in future.

Laurie Penny is a British political journalist. The name of her personal blog, Penny Red, is meant to signal her political sympathies.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an American author. When asked if he was a libertarian anarchist, he replied:

No, I am a green socialist, roughly. A utopian. I don’t like libertarianism as I understand it because it seems to keep private property, police, and other aspects of the current system, indeed it seems to keep capitalism.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a British author. I know least about his politics; his views may be the hardest to pigeon-hole. But after the British general election he tweeted that he lived in a “weird country” and that he was eating chocolate muffins as “compensation” for the result.

Given the facts, no reasonable person would dispute that all these people identify with the left-hand side of the political spectrum in their respective countries. That means none of them identify with the right, or even the current middle. But they were asked to discuss how to portray politics in a more authentic way. Does that not seem odd, if the goal was an impartial analysis of authenticity?

Last week I wrote some things that upset some people. Put very simply, I observed that American writers are more likely to win awards if the awards are decided by people who are mostly American, and who participate in conventions that are mostly held in America. I also believe that lefty writers are more likely to win awards if the awards are voted on by lefties who attend conventions where lefty speakers are preferred.

I have less data of relevance to the second observation. Hugo voters do not register their political affiliations, and it is harder to objectively determine a person’s politics than their nationality. But I struggle to see how these observations could be considered controversial. Substitute the word ‘Cambodia’ for ‘America’, or the word ‘Buddhist’ for ‘lefty’. The statements are true based on what we know about people in general, irrespective of the specific tribe they belong to. People vote for book awards according to taste. Their tastes are influenced by their experiences, and are manifest in the groups they choose to identify with.

For all the debate about awards and politics in SF, few have proposed good ideas for promoting polite conversation between them and us (or between us and them, depending on your point of view). That seems odd, because every single Worldcon has been hosted in a democratic country, meaning that the vast majority of Worldcon participants are familiar with cultures that encourage dialogue between political adversaries. We understand the point made by Churchill, when he said:

To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.

I think the next Worldcon should emulate the last one, by having a panel that overtly discusses politics in SF. But this time, a full range of opinions should be represented. If that occurred, the speakers might – there are no guarantees – demonstrate how it is possible to disagree without resorting to name-calling, tantrums, no-platforming, or any other shenanigans that seek to promote some by excluding others.

So then I wondered who would be on that panel, if I was given the task of selecting the speakers, and the omnipotence to ensure their willing participation. Kim Stanley Robinson would be a good choice, even though I was unhappy about last year’s panel. Brad Torgersen would be an obvious pick, if not detained by an actual war-war somewhere else.

However, I found my challenge was beyond me, or else I would have presented a list of names here. It is devilishly difficult to pick five people to intelligently and sincerely discuss how politics might be authentically represented in SF, whilst also reflecting a comprehensive range of political opinions. To get a good choice, you would have to select individuals who are passionate without being divisive, who are earnest and persuasive, who are knowledgeable and credible, and who play well with others, though you will strongly disagree with some of them. What do you think a truly balanced panel would look like? Not having a good answer to share, I am curious to learn from others.

On Worldcons and World Cups

Normally it is considered foolish to insult customers. But others do it, so why not me too? Like others, I do foolish things from time to time, not least when honestly stating my point of view. However, I try to back those views, no matter how outrageous, with objective data. Today I want to discuss who belongs to the supposed mainstream of science fiction ‘fandom’, and who sits on the periphery. I will do this whilst presenting data about the World Science Fiction Convention, the group that hands out the Hugo Awards.

Anybody who objectively looks at the Worldcon data can easily distinguish Worldcon’s notion of a mainstream SF fan from the rest of humanity. The distinction does not lie in the fan’s gender, race, sexual orientation or political beliefs. The difference is their nationality. If the claims are correct, and Worldcon represents the mainstream of science fiction ‘fandom’, then it is dominated by citizens of the United States of America. Every other nationality is on the margins, if it is represented at all.

Please forgive that I put the word ‘fandom’ into inverted commas. I do so to draw attention to an important fact. The people who decide who belongs to fandom – and hence who is excluded – are the people who are already members. Unlike most language, the correct use of a word like ‘fandom’ cannot be influenced by the great mass of humanity. On the contrary, the word is defined by a clique. In turn, the word defines who belongs to that clique, creating a circularity which cannot be penetrated by outsiders. To have an opportunity to influence the meaning of the word, you must join the clique. Everyone else is excluded from the conversation.

These may seem like extravagant claims. But I want you to think of the following words, and what they mean: Alinsky; Fox News; Gamergate; and Limbaugh. These are some words that I have seen repeatedly used by people who feel ire towards the Sad Puppies. They are often used whilst trying to depict the Puppies as a faction which opposes diversity. But none of those words are commonly used outside of the USA. Many intelligent, educated English-speakers will have little or no idea what these words refer to. And yet, without any sense of irony, people who say they want science fiction to be more inclusive keep using uniquely American cultural references to describe their point of view.

To further illustrate, I googled very recent posts that support Irene Gallo. Here are snippets from those posts, written by people who honestly believe they want to make the science fiction community more inclusive.

…it’s no more unfair to characterize the Puppies by their leaders’ statements than it is unfair to characterize Republicans by the positions of George Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

That’s a move straight out of the Breitbart playbook.

There was an episode of “All In The Family” — where an argument got out of control.

Just how much cultural awareness is needed to appreciate that an argument about the Worldcon awards will not be improved by endless references to American politicians, American news websites, and American TV shows? Are people who express themselves this way serious about wanting a genuinely inclusive community, or do they only want to include people who already share their opinions, experiences and culture?

Here come the stats about Worldcons. People who are sensitive about diversity may want to look away.

The number of Worldcons to date = 72
The number of countries in the world = 196
The number of countries which have hosted a Worldcon = 7
The number of Worldcons held outside the USA = 19
The number of Worldcons held in the USA = 53
The proportion of Worldcons in the USA (so far) = 73.6%

I went to Loncon3, reportedly the Worldcon with the most members and the second-highest attendance. Even holding an event in the UK does not stop an extraordinary American domination of ‘fandom’. 38.6% of Loncon3 members were from the US, only a sliver behind the number of Brits who took part. But as an outsider, what really shocked me was the selection of speakers. I had assumed British SF is relatively healthy compared to that found in most nations. There are many British authors whose work I have enjoyed. And I imagined I might be introduced to a wider range of authors, from around Europe and nearby regions like North Africa and the Middle East. But few Loncon3 panels could muster more than one token non-American. Some panels were staffed solely by Americans.

Perhaps the organizers of Loncon3 deserve no blame for this state of affairs. Perhaps they attracted the best people available. But what does that say about the science fiction community, and how inclusive it is?

Look also at who is nominated for Hugo awards. I do not believe I should vote for awards, because I would never read enough to feel justified to have an opinion. In addition, all art is a matter of taste, so the primary purpose of awards is to generate a marketing buzz, and to signal who belongs to an elite that sets tastes for others. If you and I are both free-thinking mature individuals, then my idea of the best will rarely match your idea of the best, so it is daft to argue about what is best. Nevertheless I read all the short stories that were nominated last year. This is what they were like:

  • Chinese people written about in a way that panders to American tastes;
  • Thai people written about in a way that panders to American tastes;
  • Scots folklore and Arab descendants written about in a way that panders to American tastes; and
  • Dinosaur sings on Broadway after being called a fag and a towel-head.

I did not like these stories, but as I already stated, there is no point arguing about taste. And I understand why writers have every right to prosper by pandering to American tastes; these stories were primarily sold to American customers. But do the fans who liked these stories see nothing lamentable about this selection? Call me old-fashioned, but surely an audience keen on science fiction will notice that none of these stories are set in space. Seemingly they all occur during the present day. There is not even a hint of science in any of them. And they all affirm the values of the American readers they were written for. In other words, whilst these stories refer to places and cultures outside of the USA, the characters exhibited little diversity of thought or opinion, even though none of these stories conform to traditional expectations about SF culture.

Diversity entails a degree of friction. Customs clash, and compromise is hard. Nobody can win every battle, if they really accept the full range of human diversity. I read science fiction stories in the hopes of being challenged by them. But the truth is that ‘fandom’ is easily embraced by people who say they want diversity, but who loathe to be challenged. They want to be amongst people who think like them. The point of ‘fandom’ is to share a mutual love, which puts it into potential conflict with any outsiders who represent real diversity. So the Chinese gay guy ends up with his true all-American love. And the selkies escape to Colorado to live and love each other in peace. And the shemale dinosaur is the subject of the supreme cliché of love, elicited via a deathbed. And literally everything in Thailand turned out the way it was lovingly destined to be.

Brad Torgersen wrote something relevant about Worldcon, and I suspect many people who read it missed one of the points he made. So let me help, by adding some additional emphasis.

…Or maybe just be wholly transparent and call it White American Liberals Con — An inclusive, diverse place where everyone talks about the same things, has the same tastes, votes the same way, and looks at the world through the same pair of eyes…

…Because the ultimate question in a polyglot society — or a polyglot field of the arts — is whether or not you (and your tribe) can make room in your hearts and minds for the people from the other tribes. Are the other tribes really dangerous? Or are you simply worried that by letting the outside tribes mingle with the inside tribe, you will lose the authenticity and flavor that you believe makes your tribe special? How much are you willing to sacrifice to preserve your culture, versus allowing your culture to mix with others, and blend? We know these fears. They perk up every time a new wave of immigrants comes. Doesn’t matter if its Irish, German, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, or Mexican. People become very upset with the idea that the new tribe is going to wash away everything about the old tribe. Can the new tribe be assimilated? What if they won’t assimilate, what then?

Perhaps some failed to notice this nuance within Torgersen’s argument because Torgersen is also American. But who else should make an argument about the insular national character of SF ‘fandom’? Kenyans? Saudis? Me? Doing so is counterintuitive and bad for business. Who wants to struggle to join an insular group in order to upset the prospective customers they meet there, by telling them their tastes are narrow? (Apart from me, that is.)

If Worldcon members want diversity, they could do a lot more to appeal to the inhabitants of other countries. Forget arguments about changing how to vote for the Hugo. The method of choosing where to host Worldcon is much more broken than the awards are. The choice of Worldcon location is the most obvious and negative influence on who belongs to ‘fandom’, and it contributes to the insular nature of the Hugo Awards.

People are selfish. They choose what is easiest and best for themselves. But if Worldcon members want the real diversity that comes from extending the SF market to the hundreds of millions of English speakers in countries like India, Nigeria and the Philippines, they need to take Worldcon to those countries. They should not sit on their haunches, waiting for foreigners to become so enamored with an inward-looking American subculture that they literally beg for Americans to come and lecture them about storytelling.

The Worldcon could learn a lot from the World Cup. (If you do not know what I am referring to when I discuss the World Cup, you are already too culturally isolated to be helped.) Science fiction should be a global culture. Football is a global culture. Anyone with legs can kick a ball around, whether a boy or girl, black or white. Anyone with imagination can dream of fantastic scenarios in faraway places. So why is the ownership of SF so narrow, when the whole world rejoices in the World Cup?

(And note, in the culture of my birth, like most cultures, the sport is called football. For once, I am not going to indulge American cultural quirks any more than I have to.)

The World Cup has been going longer than Worldcon, but because it is held every four years, there have only been 20 tournaments so far. But unlike Worldcon, the World Cup has been hosted by 16 different countries! Moving beyond its traditional bases in Europe and South America, the World Cup has been held in Asia, Africa and North America. This magnificent accomplishment has occurred even though the top football administrator, a Swiss man by the name of Sepp Blatter, is a corrupt old white guy who said women footballers should wear tight shorts and gay fans should just refrain from having sex in countries that ban homosexuality!

And yet, that corrupt old white man has succeeded in promoting much more celebration of international diversity than Worldcon has. In fact, part of the reason Blatter has held on to power so long is because he has pushed for the World Cup to be taken to new places, like Africa, East Asia and the Middle East.

What stops Worldcon from being taken to new countries? It is not language. Lots of Africans are fluent in English; there are 83 million English speakers in Nigeria alone. Many educated Asians speak English as well as you or I. In Pakistan, 65 percent of salaried professionals speak English because it is crucial to career advancement. In total, 92 million Pakistanis have learned English, and 24 million are fluent. In the Middle East, English is the lingua franca for educated people because of the difficulties caused by having multiple dialects of Arabic and large numbers of Asian expatriate workers. 300 million Chinese are learning English. And yet, when 758 members of Loncon3 voted on where to hold Worldcon74, 651 preferred Kansas City. Only 70 voted for Beijing. The population of China is 1.36 billion, of which 11.5 million live in Beijing. The population of the USA is 317 million, and Kansas City is home to just 467,000. Which location is most likely to increase the diversity of SF ‘fandom’? Which host would do most to expand the SF market?

I do not believe that language, or inertia, explains the failure of SF ‘fandom’ to broaden their international horizons. It would certainly make good business to promote the grass roots of SF around the world. And any cosmopolitan would be happy to see the art form they love being appreciated in other nations. I think the real inhibition is that few in the existing mainstream want to tackle the uncomfortable challenge of broadening the SF market to accommodate contrasting cultures, and alternative tastes. It is easy to talk about wanting diversity amongst the audience, but that is unlikely to be realized unless there is also a willingness for producers and gatekeepers to compromise on matters of opinion and taste.

If Worldcon was hosted in South Africa, it might have to deal with a culture where one in four men confess to being rapists. If Worldcon went to Malaysia, it would find itself in a culture where the majority of Muslims believe leaving the faith should be punishable with death. Qatar is scheduled to host the 2022 World Cup, and they are nearing completion of one of the largest convention centres in the world, with a view to becoming a hub for global and regional events. But if Worldcon went to Qatar, its members would have to engage with a society where homosexuality is against the law, many women choose to cover their faces, and expatriate workers have inadequate legal protection, leading to their mistreatment.

If you have strongly-held progressive beliefs, you should want to go to places like South Africa, Malaysia and Qatar; nobody changes opinions by avoiding those who disagree with them. And dealing with weighty real-world issues might discourage some of the sound and fury that taints arguments about how to vote for a book award. The people who say they stand with Gallo believe themselves to be principled, even though comparing the Sad Puppies to Nazis is idiotic, insulting and counterproductive. Let them show how principled they are, not by using the internet to express solidarity for a New Yorker employed by a publishing company, but by meeting the remorseless diversity of humanity in person. If they did, they might discover extremes that put the actions of people who voted for a book award into some useful context.

Torgersen is right about Worldcon and the awards it hands out. It is an event for Americans, by Americans. Everybody else assimilates, or is excluded. Worldcon might promote an American industry to customers overseas, but reveals little appetite for international diversity within that industry. That would imply more competition for American writers and American businessmen, and it would also mean more competition amongst ideas.

I like my science fiction to be challenging, and I find the world to be a challenging place. Not everyone is like me, and not everyone shares my tastes or opinions. It would be unreasonable to expect otherwise. So I must expect that some will prefer to observe the world whilst wearing blinkers or rose-tinted spectacles. They have a right to free speech, even if they only use it to talk amongst themselves. If it makes them happy, they should continue as they are. But nobody should pretend that the members of Worldcon aspire to realize the greatest, most diverse potential of the SF market. They may refer to their event as Worldcon, but this ‘fandom’ retreats from the world at large.

Ray Blank is not a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.