…apart, of course, from “don’t be like them”…
For those who haven’t been following this on my blog, there are
two extreme right-wing to neo-nazi groups, called the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies respectively, that are calling for the end of social justice in science fiction and fantasy. They are unrepentantly racist, sexist and homophobic. A noisy few but they’ve been able to gather some Gamergate folks around them and elect a slate of bad-to-reprehensible works on this year’s Hugo ballot.
I think the massive, massive unpopularity of these people may have something to teach us about political campaigning. Obviously this unpopularity is, in part, because they’re truly horrible people who do things like call for the murder of one of my friends because he has a different understanding of the word “mysticism” — the correct response to Phil Sandifer saying something you disagree with (which happens in my experience about once every three blog posts or so, as he’s no stranger to controversial statements) is to tut, maybe roll your eyes, and move on, not to say that it would be right and proper to murder him.
But even aside from them being horrible people, I think their strategy was doomed to unpopularity. The basic argument of the two Puppy slates is (paraphrased but, I think, keeping the sense — I’m trying to steelman them here, presenting the best possible version of their argument):
The Hugo awards are no longer fit for purpose. Too much of the material that gets nominated or wins is material that ignores the traditional strengths of SF in favour of bad attempts at lit-fic. This material is *so* bad that there must be reasons other than its popularity for it to be successful. Therefore, it is the fault of “social justice warriors” (defined here as anyone to the left of, say, Dick Cheney) who, as we all know, are evil. They must be voting for those writers because they’re black or female or gay or otherwise “SJW”. The system is too broken to fight fairly, so to save the Hugos we must have a slate, and all vote the same way. Here are the best examples of the work we should be voting for — go forth and vote for them.
Now, this is in many ways the kind of narrative that has huge success in motivating people — hence the strong motivation of the two hundred or so people in the Puppy camp. It has a golden age in the past in which “people like us” were in charge and everything was good, but then the bad people did a bad thing, because they’re bad, and now everything is *their fault*, but the good people can fix everything. This is a traditional fascist narrative, but you can very easily change it to work for, say, Liberalism (if only that dastardly Labour party hadn’t usurped the true progressive voice…) or the Labour party (if only Thatcher hadn’t bribed those selfish bastards into voting for her…) or really insert your political organisation here.
But the problem is, this is a complex narrative (a rarity for the Puppies… thank you, I’ll be here all week, tip your waitress) made up of several separate controversial links, and unless you buy into *every one* of those links, the Puppy story fails and you’re no longer a Puppy.
Take me, for example. I could easily agree with the statement “Too much of the material that gets nominated or wins is material that ignores the traditional strengths of SF in favour of bad attempts at lit-fic” — I’ve made many similar statements myself over the years (check my previous years’ Hugo posts if you don’t believe me), though I would disagree with the Puppies about what those traditional strengths are. A campaign that was *purely* about promoting “traditional SF” and raising awareness of it to get it onto ballots would be something I would at least look at sympathetically. I’d end up saying “No, not for me, thanks”, because what I want out of SF is closer to Greg Egan than Doc Smith, but I’d have gone away thinking “I hope those nice people do well with their campaign, at least it’d mean something different would be on the ballot.”
But at the point where you try to drag in the US-centric “culture war”, and argue for the right-wing side of it, you lose not only the “SJWs”, but basically anyone in the Western world outside the USA, because even the most barking right-winger in the UK would be considered a leftist by US culture war standards, and the UK is right-wing compared to most of the rest of the West.
Then there’s the claim that the Puppies’ work is the best of what’s out there — on a purely aesthetic ground, that claim is a nonsense, and I get very annoyed at people pushing clearly sub-par work.
So even if the Puppies hadn’t made an actual enemy of me by including among their membership white supremacist homophobes who advocate rape and murder, I would wish them to fail purely because of their promotion of poor work and their culture war agenda.
But then there are other people — right-wing Republicans who like the stories — who are also voting “No Award” above the Puppies because they’re angry that those works got on the ballot thanks to voting slates, which are against the spirit of the awards and break the unspoken agreement among fandom not to do that kind of thing.
I have to say that personally, that bit doesn’t annoy me too much. I mean, it annoys me a bit, because it’s cheating, but if they’d cheated and got a *really great* bunch of stories on there, I’d have had a sneaking admiration for it. I’d not have approved, mind, but I’d not have been that angry.
And this is the point I want to make — the Puppy position, as I summarised it above, has seven different controversial assumptions by my count, all of them taken as obvious statements of faith rather than actually substantiated. *Each of those assumptions is a reason for people to disagree* — and even if 80% of people agree with any one of the assumptions, that would make only 20% of people actually agree with *all* of them. And if you don’t agree with all of them, then the Puppy campaign falls apart (unless of course you don’t care about anything other than “sticking it to the SJWs”).
There’s an important lesson here. The Puppies are targeting the small number of people in the *intersection* of all their beliefs — ideological purists who don’t question any of their assumptions. The anti-Puppy “faction” is simply the union of all people who disagree with even one of their assumptions. And this might point a way forward for campaigning — rather than saying “these are our policy positions, if you agree with them, campaign for them”, allow a much greater disunity of messaging and of campaigning. Give seven *separate and independent* reasons for voting reform, for example, rather than a long chain of steps like “MPs don’t work hard enough, and AV would make MPs work harder, and MPs working harder would be a good thing” like the Yes campaign in 2011 or “Labour are too left wing. The Tories are too right-wing. Moderation is better” like the Lib Dem campaign this year…