Blank Slate

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(This post relates to the 2015 Hugo Awards controversy. If you wanna figure out what all the fuss is about, go read this or check out File770.com.)

I’ll confess, I’m just as subject to being drawn into a good-old, emotionally manipulative moral panic as the next guy – hey, I’m here writing this blog post, aren’t I? But, I must admit, I have seldom seen more time and energy put into such an incoherent, and thoroughly unenlightening, debate as The Great Canine-Related Hugo Controversy of 2015.

The word furry of the internet is crying out for someone to unpacked this melee – to take it issue by issue, and try to make sense of it. Seeing an opening in that market niche, I’m gonna take a crack at it.

Let’s start with the “original sin,” as it were, the slates.

In the beginning, there was Brad (Torgersen, best-selling author and Sad Puppies standard bearer). Brad said “Have fun!”, and – oh, yes – there was fun. (No, seriously. “Have fun” was one of the six original goals of the Sad Puppies campaign. It’s right here, in black-and-white. How’s that working out for ya, guys!?)

Try as they might, I’d say even the Puppies are having a hard time pretending this whole spectacle is still any fun. The heavy-hearted hounds seem genuinely surprised by the spontaneous backlash that their skullduggery has sparked, looking especially caught off guard by the seemingly sizeable, and utterly organic, movement to vote “No Award” rather than endorse any puppy-related works. Now, some Puppies have even gone so far as to warn of a counter-backlash, threatening a so-called “nuclear option” that will – wait for it – Destroy the Hugos, Once and For All!

On the surface, the Puppies seem to have a point. These much maligned mongrels insist, quite correctly, that they’re hardly the first folks to campaign for the Hugos, or even publish lists of recommended offerings. In response to these facts, many puppy-opponents have quibbled over what constitutes a “slate”, or argued that what really matters is influence, not intent. But I must admit, I find these arguments, ultimately, unconvincing.

Putting aside the reasoning behind the Puppy slates – which is, admittedly, thoroughly objectionable to many of us all on its own – I’ve yet to see anyone offer a cogent, clearly articulated explanation for what makes the machinations of these melancholy mutts categorically different than what’s been done, without controversy, in years past.

I’d like to humbly suggest that the anti-puppies have been sucked into debating a strawman. While most of the prominent denunciations of the dispirited dogs have focused on their use of slates, the real problem with the pessimistic pups isn’t about slates at all, but rather tactical voting.

By linking their Hugo recommendations to a larger cause – namely, putting those insufferable progressives in their place – the Puppies have effectively encouraged their small-but-loyal pack of supporters to nominate works based on a political agenda – not the works themselves, not even their own individual preferences. That’s the issue. Not campaigning for particular works, but rendering the works themselves a meaningless consideration.

If anyone doubts that this was the predictable, and actual, result these campaigns, ask yourself this: The Puppies recommended dozens of potential nominees, garnering 61 of 85 Hugo nominations in the categories where they participated. They claimed to be promoting a diverse list of works, featuring a range of voices in contemporary SF/F. Well, if the Puppies’ lists were so diverse, how could their supporters have possibly all agreed that each of these offerings was of one the best works of the year? Hundreds of people agreeing on all, or nearly all, the same choices? 61 nominees in common? Based purely on merit and personal taste? C’mon.

Does anyone really believe that most Puppies even read, saw or listened to most of the works they nominated? How many posts have we all read where the Puppies lament the elevation of “message” over “merit”? Is the irony lost on everyone involved that this is precisely what the Puppies claim to hate?

It certainly seems lost on Sad Puppies founder Larry Correia. After helping to engineer the greatest tactical voting scheme in Hugo history, Correia recently declared, ever so breathlessly, that he simply could not believe that he actually had to urge all Hugo voters to read the works that been nominated before voting for the award. But, dude, your supporters voted to nominate these works without reading them either!? What the frack!?

Now, some will no doubt respond that the Puppies are merely fighting fire with fire. They’ll point to calls to promote more diversity and inclusiveness in SF/F, and shout “the other guys did it first!” Just read Sad Puppies captain Brad Torgersen himself. Brad claims the Hugo Awards have been “quietly gamed” for decades by the social justice cabal.

Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters.

Brad’s wildly dismissive and insulting language aside, this argument ignores a couple of basic facts.

First, the hundreds of people required to successfully “game” a Hugo nomination vote absolutely precludes such a thing being done quietly.

Second, this line of thinking assumes that the only way to promote diversity is through tokenism. That, in turn, betrays a complete and utter lack of understanding of the issue at hand.

In the Hugo voting process, like in many aspects of life, what often matters more than merit is being seen. The single best way to promote diversity and inclusiveness is to ensure that the work of traditionally underrepresented groups is seen and considered (not “victim” groups, by the way, as Brad chooses to style them). In other words, how about we give a little more time and deliberation to those who’s work may not fit the formula cooked up by an old boys club to which they do not belong?

In the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, this is exactly what been happening in recent years. Influential writers and opinion leaders have been raising awareness about what they see as great work* by, or about, women, people of colour, the LGBT community and others. There is no conspiracy involved. No one is forcing these works down anyone’s throats. No one is calling for Hugos voters to push works of certain ilk, merits aside.

No one, that is, but the Puppies themselves. Huh.

How ’bout we think about that before next year, eh?

Check this space: In coming days, I’ll be looking at why popular awards like the Hugos diverge so greatly from what puppy supporters would expect, and what the Puppies ultimately seem to want from all this.

*Mileage on what constitutes “great work” may vary. For the record, despite being able to appreciate many aspects of it, I didn’t particularly like the dinosaur story either, K?

5 thoughts on “Blank Slate

  1. I believe you’re too focused on talking up your POV that you’re able to discuss the problem with slates neutrally. The demand that they be categorically different is – to me – a warning sign. Still, I’ll give it a shot.
    Tactical voting is no problem _at all_ if it’s restricted to one work per category. Everyone can – in theory – read that one work and for nomination it’s enough that they find it Hugo worthy, not that it be “best of”. And if enough voters get behind a works nomination it makes the final ballot legitimately. So, per your reasoning above, tactical voting is no problem and not categorically different from what everyone else is doing when the urge people to nominate their favourite work.
    Thing it, it’s the combination that makes the whole thing a problem: tactical voting _on slates_ is what pushes other stuff out.

    See also:
    https://everythingisnice.wordpress.com/2015/04/10/actually-its-about-ethics-in-award-nominations/

  2. I agree with you that the bulk of the opposition to the Puppy Slates is the horrified reaction to the idea that tactical voting would occur and impact the Hugo nominations. (There’s also the issue that the group that resulted in the most effective tactical voting was led by a person with public views that are anathema to most people–yes I’m talking about Vox Day and the Rabid Puppies.)

    The reason why most anti-Puppies are virulently against the notion of public slates (and have thus reacted by calling for placing such works below No Award and/or left of their ballots entirely) is that the tactical voting by the RP and SP factions would not be possible without the existence of the public slates.

    Plus I believe there is something qualitatively different about putting up a slate (which by its existence will almost certainly lead to tactical voting) and a list of recommendations which COULD lead to tactical voting, but is far less likely to do so.

    Additionally, we know that the SP/RP slates resulted in tactical voting by the results of the current Hugo ballot and it has not been shown that recommendation lists have caused tactical voting in the past.

    1. It’s true that the label “slate” implies tactical voting more so than “recommendation list”, but that’s more or less my point: The Puppies “recommendation list” was categorically different than previous such lists became it was accompanied by an exhortation to vote tactically.

  3. Excellent entry. I agree with you that tactical voting is seriously problematic, but it’s actually a lot easier to explain ‘slates are bad, don’t use them’ than trying to get into the Puppies’ motivations, where plausible deniability shows up. Yeah, some of them didn’t read the nominated works, but some of them probably did, and they’re just going to scream about how everyone else did it, too (despite this being false). Slate voting to game the Hugos is specifically something different that the Puppies did that’s never been done before.

    For me, the big tell is that the puppies’ entire claim is that stories and novels from conservative authors were systemically excluded from the Hugos for the past (5 years? 10 years? depends on which Puppy is talking at the time), but when asked for the titles of these awesome stories that should’ve been Hugo nominees, they’re unable to cite a single one and frantically change the subject. That’s another aspect I think is most useful to press.

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