Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sad Puppies and Good Old Boys: On Diversity in Science Fiction and Philosophy

Sad Puppies Ate My Hugo

If you’ve been following the hubbub surrounding this year’s Hugo nominations, you’ve probably been thinking about diversity in science fiction (and fantasy, but my focus here will be on science fiction).  If you haven’t been following the Hugo hubbub, I can say it involves a group consisting mostly of angry conservative white men who call themselves Sad Puppies and just gets weirder from there.  See this helpful post on the issue as well as this article from The Atlantic that ties the issue to Gamergatethis one from Susan Grigsby, and this excellent LiveJournal (really?) post from George R.R. Martin that puts to the test, and thoroughly decimates, the Puppies' claims of ideological exclusion.  As a result of this scandal, Connie Willis has even declined to participate in a Hugo ceremony. For some background, see "Where are all the women of color in science fiction?" 

The Puppies’ anger simply baffles me.  As a straight white cisgender man in 2015 America, I can assure you that we're doing just fine.  I even love space operas written by other white guys like Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton.  But I don’t insist that the entire field of science fiction should consist of people like me who like all the same things I like.  I just don’t get it.

Good Old Boys Keep Philosophy Old School (but in a Mad Men sort of way)

Philosophy faculty meeting, circa 1965 or 2015

If you've ever been associated with the academic study of philosophy in North America, you've also probably been thinking about how philosophy continues to be the least diverse discipline in the humanities, both in terms of teachers and curriculum.  (See “Diversity and Inclusiveness Resources” from the American Philosophical Association for statistics and more).
Raphael's "School of Athens" (1509) is more diverse than many Philosophy 101 syllabi in America today with at least one woman philosopher (Hypatia) and one Islamic philosopher (Averroes)
Many philosophy departments continue to create hostile environments for women and people of color, as evidenced by several recent reports.  See this article on widely publicized findings at the University of Colorado at Boulder and another article on the controversy surrounding big name philosopher Colin McGinn.  See also this interview with philosopher Emily S. Lee on being an Asian American woman in philosophy.  If you still don’t believe it could possibly be this bad, see the excellent, if depressing, blog, What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?

Diversity is Good for All of Us (even Sad Puppies and Good Old Boys)

It’s because I love science fiction and philosophy so much that the trouble each area has with diversity makes me so sad (albeit, not of the puppy variety).
Hugo winners, 2014
As I argued in my review of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, engaging with diverse perspectives in science fiction and in philosophy is important because the truth is bigger than any single perspective.  If we’re going to understand things about the universe, society, each other, and ourselves, we’re going to have to go beyond our own perspectives.  As I said in that post, “we have something to learn from everyone.”  Yes, even Sad Puppies and Good Old Boys can learn from everyone, just as we can learn from them (even if what we learn from them is sometimes that they're wrong).  None of this needs to collapse into a simplistic “anything goes” sort of relativism, an issue I took up in this post.  

There's also something disturbing about trying to erase the diversity of the present though erasing the diversity of the past and of the future.  For instance, we erase the diversity of the past in the almost exclusively male and Eurocentric way the history of philosophy is typically taught, and we erase the diversity of the future in the way that some science fiction operates on the assumption that the future contains few, if any, women, people of color, GLBT people, disabled people, or even non-Americans.

Both science fiction and philosophy are best when they expand our boundaries of what we conceive to be possible, when they enrich our imaginations about how things could be beyond the quotidian pleasantries of unthinking “common sense.”  But you don't have to take my word for it. 

As one of my favorite authors, Ursula K. LeGuin, said, we need “realists of a larger reality.”

The problem isn't just that the Sad Puppies and the Good Old Boys are obnoxious, but that they’re working to erase diversity from the past, present, and future.  In doing so, they're moving us away from the potential of what science fiction and philosophy could do for all of us.


  1. Well said. Most of the arguments against the SPs that I've read, such as GRRM's, tend to focus on refuting their specific claims: there is no blacklisting, there are plenty of white males represented in the Hugos, diversity is not a strict criteria, etc. These arguments are vaild, but they bother me because they seem to grant the underlying assumption that somehow, diversity in F/SF is bad and shouldn't be so prevalent. Your post is the one I've been waiting for (and haven't had time to write). You are absolutely correct that diversity is a good thing, and that this SP movement amounts to an effort to erase diversity from the past and future. Good F/SF has always been about pushing boundaries and seeing what lies beyond.

    What really bothers me is that this right-wing, good-old-boy, roll-back-the-clock movement is seeping into a lot of the hobbies I enjoy. It seemed to start with the Tea Party, then it moved into Gamergate, and now it's in the Hugos. As you say, these aren't just your typical sexist/racist rants: these are full-throated, loudmouth attempts to eliminate diversity in gaming and F/SF literature by making minorities feel unwelcome, even threatened. It makes me very angry, and arguing with them about their claims ("What do you mean? There aren't that many women in gaming.") instead of their underlying assumptions leads to some very dangerous places.

    I won't sugarcoat it: this movement sickens me. It moves us in the wrong direction as a fandom and as a society. It comes off as paranoid and hateful, and attempts to destroy good ideas like diversity by twisting them around and claiming victimization ("Oh, you're so tolerant, but you won't tolerant MY dissenting point of view [that we should all be intolerant and hateful]").

    I love how they use the term "SJW" like it's supposed to be some kind of insult. When the hell did it become a thing of shame to campaign for social justice? What does it say about a person's worldview that they would use that term as an insult? I should be so lucky as to be considered a Social Justice Warrior. Yes, I do believe diversity is a good thing. I do believe we should welcome all people. I do believe we should be KIND and CIVIL to one another, and show RESPECT. If they think that makes me their enemy, then that tells me everything I need to know about them.

    The only saving grace in the whole debacle is that in the long run, I suspect these movements will prove to be the death throes of an antiquated and ugly worldview's ability to survive on the public stage. The fact of the matter is, women and minorities have more public visibility and exist in an environment far more welcoming than any in recent history, and those gains will not be so easy to undo. Ultimately, it is a good thing that if these assholes existed, they were kind enough to show their faces and start screaming. It demonstrates to the rest of us that we are not there yet, that the battle is not won, and that we become complacent at our own risk.

    1. Thanks for this! The Puppies' accusations do seem paranoid, especially when put to the test as GRRM did. They are also baseless (as if a vague feeling that "she only won because she's a woman" counts as evidence). But to me none of this was ever really about whether the Puppies' claims are true (although they aren't true). As you've pointed out, it really is about whether diversity is something we should value.

      What seems to really irk the Puppies is the idea that diverse audiences might just like diverse stuff for aesthetic reasons, because it's different than what was being published in 1960, or because it might actually speak to people's experiences and expand everyone's horizons.

      This idea that SJWs (which I agree is totally weird to denigrate) have some kind of conspiracy is a pretty obvious psychological defense mechanism against the more obvious truth that many people enjoy and relate to more diverse stuff. The Puppies don't have to like it, but why not just create, as GRRM suggested, a conservative, old school space opera award or whatever? This insidious Social Justice Warrior Conspiracy to Ruin the Hugos for Red-Blooded (White Male) Americans is much like the conspiracy that President Obama is a secret Nazi Muslim socialist coming to take our guns and kill grandma -- it says far more about the beliefs and values of the people who believe it than it does about reality.

      As you point out, the Puppies are merely a vocal minority. As a result of this kerfuffle, I am confident that their numbers will dwindle. Fandom and other domains (like philosophy) have always been diverse. The failure to recognize this is irrational. The failure to value it is misguided.

    2. Afterthought: It's also funny that the Puppies responded to the imaginary SJW conspiracy with a real conspiracy of their own!

  2. Thank you, Adam, for the comment. I will respond to it in more detail later. In the meantime, I just read a very long and interesting blog post that more carefully distinguishes the Sad Puppies from the Rabid Puppies (among many other things). If you can stick with it, it ends with a really nice bit on Janelle Monáe: http://www.philipsandifer.com/2015/04/guided-by-beauty-of-their-weapons.html

  3. See also this hilarious book review: http://www.alexandraerin.com/2015/05/sprb-the-monster-at-the-end-of-this-book/

  4. A link to this post ended up on Yahoo! Answers, so welcome Yahoo! Answers readers! See: https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20150508120252AAC7epn

  5. Some meta-blogging about the internet adventures of this post: http://examinedworlds.blogspot.com/2015/05/sad-puppies-and-good-old-boys-in-land.html