Monday, March 17, 2014

Fandom Flame Wars!

I can't say as I've ever been into a fandom. There are lots of things that I like passionately, but I'm a bit of a loner. I don't normally seek out others who like the same things in order to share it with them. But I respect fandoms. I think it's great that a love for a common thing can bring people together and increase their enjoyment. It's also yet another place for people to argue incessantly.

I've been a fan of science fiction and fantasy all my life (well, at least since The Hobbit started me on reading for pleasure as a kid). Lately it seems like there's been a lot of ruckus in the fandoms of the genres, at conventions, with awards, and, of course, online forums (Here's a few links if you want to run down those rabbit holes: Baen publishing,, SFWA). On the one hand, I have nothing invested and no need to get involved. On the other hand, it hurts my logical brain to see poor arguments bandied about to beat down the opponent. So I've come here, where I can say whatever I want (and very few people will notice :).

I've talked before about making arguments in general, so I want to point out something to everyone. It's not the error of the opponents argument that is the problem, it's the validity. Both sides (in fact, there are probably several) have good points that are correct and true, depending on what you take as a starting point. But since everyone is working from a different starting point - because we all have such very different experiences in life - our truths don't match up with the other persons and endless debate - that never wins anyone over - follows.

In my view, it seems things are breaking down into two sides. One side, let's call them the old guard, has been around for a while. It consists of longtime fans and even professionals in the industry. Many have grown up with SF&F and embraced it long before it was as popular as it is now. Many have also done much good work to allow the fandom to exist, from organizing conferences to writing great books to editing popular magazines. They deserve respect for what they've accomplished and rightfully feel that the fandom world should be a place they're welcome and appreciated, because that's why they created it.

The other side, let's call them the new wave, are part of the current upswing in popularity. They come to SF&F from many angles - not just classic books and movies, but from TV shows and Anime and MMO's. They are often younger and have grown up in a world with the internet (which used to be science fiction). They are diverse and different, but they want the same thing: a fandom where they feel welcomed and appreciated.

Two groups, same goal. No problem, right? Wrong. One group wants things to stay the same, since they have what they want (belonging). One group wants change, so they can get what they want (belonging). Change breeds conflict. Since time immemorial there's been the old guard and new wave in every human endeavor, and the transition from one to the other is inevitable. It's how that changeover is handled that determines the amount of conflict. And if often comes down to power. Those who have it want to keep it, those who don't want to take it. Most of the crowd is along for the ride, but someone has to steer the bus. Conflict is just waiting to happen.

It often starts with a complaint from someone in the new wave that the status quo is not OK. It could be taking offense at cover art that depicts women as helpless sexual objects. It could be a suggestion that people of color are not being well represented in awards recognition. It could be many things, but the sentiment is that change is needed because they do not feel welcome.

The old guard reaction is that things are fine the way they are. Thing work for them. They've worked for a long time and they honestly don't see why a change is necessary. Don't fix what ain't broke.

Both are valid positions. If something isn't working for a significant number of people, it should be changed - if your goal is the greater good. But the truth is that you can't please everyone so not every complaint needs a fix. If you start with this understanding - that there's truth on both sides - then you can start to address the real issue.

The real issue is that compromise is always needed. And it's often said that a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy (the more optimistic might say if leaves everyone happy). So how do we come to compromise?

First, people need to stop hitting the other guy with their club of TRUTH AND RIGHTEOUSNESS. If someone does/says something offensive, most likely they do not understand why it is so. An explanation of what makes a thing offensive, an insight into the other person's mindset and experiences, goes a lot further than name calling (yes, sexist, racist, bigot, politically correct - they're all name calling even if they're accurate). If you don't take offense, but take the time to show why it's offensive, you have a chance to change the behavior. Even if you can't convince the person in front of you, you can influence the wider audience that's listening in.

But there is truth to the idea that people can find offense in anything if they look hard enough. If someone is upset, it isn't always necessary to fix the world for them. There are reasonable limits to how much time and effort is expanded to make one person/group happy at the expense of another. Before asking for unfair circumstances to be changed, make sure you are suggesting a better option that is more fair to more people, not merely a shifting of injustice from one group to another. It's far easier to complain about how responsibility is wielded then to actual use that responsibility wisely.

(Some may offend on purpose, or take offense on purpose, but they're not interested in a compromise and there's no point in discussion with them. Ultimately it's the masses that rule the day - the individuals grabbing for power can't really control the outcome unless the people relinquish their power to them.)

A compromise is reached by looking at the goals for each side and finding common ground. For example, the new wave thinks it would be great to have more stories with diverse characters and multiple sexual orientations. The old guard likes stories with male protagonists who save the day and get the girl. As a story teller, both ideas are fine and compatible to me. I don't think anyone is really insisting that their side monopolize every story and idea. As long as the arena is open to everyone, the best stories that the most people want will fight their way through.

The problem is, once the name-calling and finger pointing start, it's all shouts of white noise. It's us vs. them. Their victory is our loss, and vice versa. And it always ends the same way. The old guard passes away. The new wave becomes the establishment. The next generation finds something new to take offense at the the cycle repeats. No one wins.

If you can't win, why play? Well, there in lies the rub. It's the world we live in, be it fandom or the workplace or society as a whole. The real question is how much time is spent fighting the fruitless war vs. building something better. Sometimes you have to knock things down to have room to create. Sometimes you can find open ground if you're willing to go a little further afield. I'd rather be on the creative side of the process instead of beating my head against the existing wall.

On the issues in SF&F fandom, it's clear to me that it needs to be inclusive to survive at it's current size (or better yet, grow more). The world is too large and connected for something to be popular and restrictive. Not to mention that diversity adds so much to the world when given a chance to shine. I want to see what those different minds can create. And, at least in the world of books, there's unlimited space in which to plant a new idea.

That also means that there's still room for the old books. Still room for those who don't want stories with lesbian heroes fighting against heteronormity. It's OK if a book has a scantily clad female on the cover. As long as they don't all have that. As long those in power don't restrict the other options. That's what the fight should be for: to make sure that opportunity is equal and everyone gets a seat at the table, old guard and new wave. You don't need to wipe out the past in order to push on into the future.

So what should be done? Start with a deep breath. Getting worked up is understandable but not productive. Focus less on the opponent and more on the goal. Express what you want and why you want it. Spend your time building something new and amazing and share that with the world. That's what will get more people on your side, more people contributing to your project. Power is derived from the people, so the more people that voice what they want, the more likely those in power will listen to them. Those who isolate themselves will soon run out of space, trapped within their own walls, however thick they may be.

What does all this mean? It means I miss civil discourse. I miss a rational debate where people exchange genuine differences of opinion in an attempt to come to a solution. I don't really expect to change the internet. But I want to be proud of what I add to it. I don't need to win, I just want to be satisfied with my effort. If more of the logical, reasonable folks speak up, our quiet voices can consume the noise. Wouldn't that be nice Smiley listening to music.

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