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.

  • ksterlingh

    Hi Ray, while I have some reservations about points made in your prior essay, I thought it was nicely written. If I had time I would have replied to it stating my concerns (though I was not in any way upset). Your latest essay is also nicely written, but raises a question beyond the one you explicitly pose at the end. Since I have a moment I will respond!

    To start with your explicit question, if you want actual names for a balanced panel I can’t really help there. Generally speaking I think it would be useful to have (at the very least) a social liberal, an economic liberal, a social conservative, and an economic conservative. But it might also be useful to have people that are highly active in campaigning vs those that watch but are less active, or perhaps someone that is involved with politics as an academic, versus grassroots campaigner. Of course those suggestions are probably obvious.

    The problem is that most often you have to work with what you can get, rather than a theoretical best panel. I am not sure how worldcon selects panel members, but I assume it has to come down to who is interested in discussing a topic. Maybe those were the people available and interested?

    I get that you probably had other things you’d rather spend time on at the convention, but it would seem (since it did concern you at some level) that maybe you should have attended! Then you could comment on if they handled it ok or not. While you ask if the panel’s solid left orientation seemed odd if their goal was impartiality, we are left to answer for ourselves (based on our own biases) whether they actually failed to be impartial.

    Despite the homogeneity they might have surprised you and been objective (I’ve seen this kind of thing happen). Or if they worked as might be predicted, you could have voiced opinions outside their shared beliefs. in a way you (unfortunately) deselected yourself from the conversation.

    I guess this is to say whatever the deficits of the panel, a good audience (with balancing components) can sometimes make up for it. So in a way, maybe one of them should have been you? 🙂

    Note: This assumes there is audience participation with the panel. If not, then being an audience member wouldn’t create balance but could inform if such a panel was capable of objectivity.

    • Hi Kieran. Thanks for another thoughtful comment.

      You hit the nail on the head by identifying 8 types of possible contributor to a panel on politics. 8 types doesn’t easily go into just 5 speakers, even if there are some who can credibly cover multiple roles. That’s why I gave up on my own task. And I think you could easily argue for more than the 8 types you mention. For example, religion influences politics for some people, and in some cultures. And what about the authentic politics of cultures that do not emulate Western liberal representative democracy? In fact, should you include panelists who explicitly reject Western norms (fascists, communists, monarchists, anarchists etc)? Such individuals may be drawn to SF because it gives them an opportunity to express their hopes for the future.

      You’re right that conventions have to be run by practical people, who will put on the stage the speakers they can attract, not the dream teams they may fantasize about. If it’s hard to construct a balanced political panel in theory, then it’ll be even harder to achieve in practice. That puts the onus on organizers to do what they can to deliver diversity of opinion, or else consider rebadging a panel discussion to make it clear they couldn’t find the balance they wanted. I would have been more tempted to attend this panel if their explicit goal was promoting authentically progressive politics in SF, because then the bias would have been overt. And these people have more credibility when restricted to that more precisely defined topic.

      Maybe I should have attended the panel. I thought hard about it, which is why I remember it. I didn’t go because I saw Kim Stanley Robinson on other panels, and I didn’t feel strongly about the other speakers. I know one is quite a hectoring, rabble-rousing speaker, which also put me off. When it comes to politics, and I want to hear the arguments as presented by genuine advocates, not as mediated by interlopers. So that was why I didn’t go. Authentic politics involves the competition of ideas, so I was disappointed this panel wanted to discuss authenticity without facing the kinds of competitors they might meet elsewhere in the real world.

      If there was ever a panel that discussed politics in SF and had panelists that covered a broad range of the political spectrum, I would feel compelled to attend. I suspect many others would feel the same way. And given some of the ructions in fandom, such a panel might be a wonderful way to encourage polite dialogue between seemingly implacable foes.