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.