Action and Reaction

To paraphrase Newton’s third law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s one of the basic tenets of classical mechanics and it has analogues in other scientific fields. For instance, in chemistry, Le Chatelier’s principle indicates how a chemical equilibrium responds to a change in conditions by adjusting itself to account for the difference. In biology, you have Homeostasis. And so on. For the most part, these principles are stable and predictable, but when you raise the complexity, they start to break down.

In physics, Newton’s third law appears to fail in situations guided by quantum mechanics. Predictions become probabalistic instead of deterministic. As systems get more complex, their function gets more difficult to predict, and can even start to counteract the effect they were put in place to address. Humorist John Gall generalized Le Chatelier’s principle to say that “Any change in the status quo prompts an opposing reaction in the responding system” or, more humorously, “Systems tend to oppose their own proper function.”

Examples abound. Over-the-counter nasal docongestant sprays are effective… for about 3 days. After that, the user’s continuing stuffiness and congestion are actually caused by the product itself, something called a rebound congestion.

Once you enter even more complex realms like psychology and sociology, forget about it. These systems don’t even pretend to be predictable. Take the political movement of Liberalism, as Chris Wenham explains:

Each of the major political movements active today have changed drastically from what they were a few centuries ago. What was called Neoliberalism, for example, whose economic policies of laissez-faire, deregulation, low taxes and restricted monetary supply are now more closely associated with neoconservatism, or just “conservatism” in general. Or how modern Liberals are now said to be in favor of big government and managed economies, while Classical Liberalism, from the time of John Locke and Adam Smith, is about the opposite.

The point here, which Wenham observers, is that:

Engineers have long noted a tendency for complex systems to grow and evolve until they perform the opposite of what they were built for.

He goes on to comment on a frankly bizarre argument against Intellectual Property that compares it to human slavery, but the general idea of a system that opposes what it was built for is a fascinating one that has a basis in scientific fact, and seems to crop up just about everywhere.

An example of this in sociology is known as the Streisand Effect. This is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to suppress a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely. It is named after Barbra Streisand, who mounted a failed attempt to sue a photographer that had released a collection of 12,000 California coastline photographs (meant to document coastal erosion) that happened to include a photograph of Streisand’s beachside house. Before the lawsuit, the photo in question had been downloaded a total of 6 times (2 of which were by Streisand’s lawyers). In the month following the lawsuit, the photo was downloaded 420,000 times. And some dude from Techdirt coined the phrase Streisand Effect to illustrate the ironic folly of such situations. Somehow, I don’t think this is the outcome Streisand was hoping for.

If you’ve been following along with the current Hugo Awards imbroglio, you can probably see where I’m going with this. A few years ago, an author named Larry Correia, became convinced that the Hugo Awards had become insular and dominated by a left-wing ideology, along with its associated, depressing literary fiction tropes. So he began an effort to counter this perceived imbalanced in Science Fiction’s most prestigious award. He called this campaign Sad Puppies (because depressing SF is a leading cause of puppy related sadness), and so far, we have seen three different iterations of the Sad Puppies campaign.

The first was low key and did not gain much traction, so I will not spend much time on that. The second was significantly more successful… from Correia’s point of view. I suppose some background is in order. In 2011, a freshly minted Correia was actually nominated for a Campbell Award for Best New Writer (not technically a Hugo, but administered as part of the same process). Correia recently explained his experience:

So I went out on the internet and started searching my name, trying to find out what the buzz was for the Campbell nominees. I started calling friends who belonged to various writer forums and organizations that I didn’t belong to, asking about what people thought of my books in there.

You know what I found? WorldCon voters angry that a right-wing Republican (actually I’m a libertarian) who owned a gun store (gasp) was nominated for the prestigious Campbell. This is terrible. Did you know he did lobbying for gun rights! It’s right there on his hateful blog of hatey hate hate! He’s awful. He’s a bad person. He’s a Mormon! What! Another damned Mormon! Oh no, there are two Mormons up for the Campbell? I bet Larry Correia hates women and gays. He’s probably a racist too. Did you know he’s part of the evil military industrial complex? What a jerk.

Meanwhile, I’m like, but did they like my books?

No. Hardly any of them had actually read my books yet. Many were proud to brag about how they wouldn’t read my books, because badthink, and you shouldn’t have to read books that you know are going to make you angry. A handful of people claimed to have my read my books, but they assured the others that they were safe to put me last, because as expected for a shit person, my words were shit, and so they were good people to treat me like shit.

Regardless of what you think of Correia or actually believe these things happened to him, I think you can see why he feels the way he does. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Correia launched Sad Puppies with the explicit purpose of getting authors with the “wrong” politics on the ballot so that the world could see the response.

Sad Puppies 2 was pretty successful in that respect. It got 7 nominees on the ballot, including the dread Vox Day (more on him later, but for now all you need to know is that he is a generally despised man in certain segments of fandom, particularly those who vote on Hugos). The interesting thing about this campaign is that Correia’s goal was to provoke a negative response. It wasn’t about acknowledging writers that wouldn’t otherwise get attention, it was about making “literati heads explode” because he wrote a book where FDR was a nominal villain and got it on the Hugo ballot for best novel. The response was predictable: a massive backlash. Action, reaction. Most of the Puppy nominees last year finished low, and one finished below No Award. Correia claims he’s happy with the result, because his goal wasn’t to actually win a Hugo, just demonstrate that he’d upset people by getting the wrong works shortlisted. A decidedly pyrrhic victory, if you ask me. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy and totally against the spirit of the awards.

A year later, the torch passes to Brad Torgersen, who ran the third Sad Puppies campaign. Unlike the previous campaigns, Torgersen attempted to put a kinder, friendlier face on Sad Puppies. He spoke of diversity and bringing recognition to authors that are usually overlooked. Some of his arguments are more effective than others and I’m sure we could quibble over details, but it seems clear that he’s coming from a place of good faith. Unlike Correia before him, he really wanted to get recognition for the nominees, and wanted to give them a chance to win.

Now we come to Vox Day, an infamous personality in the field. I will not go into too many details here because I really don’t want to wade through all the unpleasant topics that arise in this discussion, but suffice it to say that he appears to be a very successful troll in the classical sense. It would be amusing if it didn’t seem so counterproductive. He’s got a knack for very carefully wording statements such that they are easily misquoted out of context and lead to easy conclusions that he’s a crazy, evil man. It’s a deliberate strategy. Where most people would clarify and caveat statements they know will be controversial, Vox leans into them. In the course of this, I think there are plenty of times in which his statements are perhaps not worded as carefully as he thinks, and thus some rather unpleasant ideas are left hanging like a bad curveball. Action, reaction. People hate the guy. Personally, I know enough about Vox to know that I don’t want or need to know more. Please don’t construe this explanation as an endorsement of anything he’s said (incidentally, this clarification that I just made is precisely the sort of thing that Vox wouldn’t do).

Vox Day’s appearance on Sad Puppies 2 seemed to be the flashpoint of that campaign and drove a lot of negative response. Perhaps recognizing this, Torgersen deliberately left Vox off the Sad Puppies 3 ballot (also of note, Torgersen left himself off the ballot as well). That doesn’t mean that Vox can’t play along though. He has a huge following, and posted his own splinter list, called Rabid Puppies, on his blog. The two lists overlap considerably, though Vox had more nominees and a much less friendly tone. For instance, Torgersen called for people to read the works and nominate what they felt was worthy. Vox urged people to “nominate them precisely as they are”. And so on.

Sad Puppies 3 and Rabid Puppies have been remarkably successful, taking the grand majority of nominees (especially in the main fiction awards) and in several categories, all the nominees are Puppy works of some kind. The response has been remarkably negative. Action, reaction.

One of those reactions is that several high profile members of fandom have vowed to vote No Award in place of any and all Puppy nominees. This means voting No Award instead of works they liked (this seems especially likely in the Best Dramatic Presentation awards), and it also means not even bothering to read the works in question. Action, reaction.

The more successful the No Award voters are, the worse off we’ll be. Vox Day has explicitly mentioned that if No Awards wins in 2015, he’ll make sure that No Award wins in 2016. This is a despicable tactic meant to bully people, but then, so is voting No Award without reading the work. Even taking Vox out of the equation, I can’t imagine a scenario where No Award winning will produce a good result next year. Somehow, this is not against the rules either, which seems odd (there’s a reasonable explanation, but what’s being deployed this year is not that). If this happens, we can look forward to years of finger pointing and pointless vitriol debating who killed the Hugos. I, for one, am not looking forward to this.

Every system in play here is caught in a negative feedback loop that is subverting the desired result. The Sad Puppies want recognition for the overlooked, but went about it in a way that alienated too many people to be successful. The Noah Ward voters are trying to register their disgust, but in doing so, seem unlikely to achieve their aims. In the meantime, the ostensibly democratic Hugo process is strained to the point of breaking.

Regardless of your stance on the matter, it would behoove us all to consider how easily our ideal scenarios can boomerang back on us, pushing us into a downward spiral that results in the opposite of what we were seeking in the first place. No one is operating in isolation. Action, reaction. While complex systems can sometimes oppose their own proper function, it doesn’t need to be that way. But if we continue on the current path, it will be that way, and I don’t think any of us want that.

My approach tends to be one of restraint and forbearance. This will not (and should not) be the same for everyone. If you’re a die-hard puppy, more power to you, and vote your conscience. I don’t like the slate approach, so please don’t coordinate so tightly in the nomination process next year. It won’t get you what you desire, it will just piss people off further. We’re in an unexpected place right now and can’t fault you for being more successful than anyone ever thought, but the important thing is what you do next year. If you’re a non-puppy or even if you’re a Noah Ward voter, more power to you too. I get the distaste for slates and certainly for Vox and don’t blame you for wanting to oppose it all in a vigorous fashion, even if that’s not my approach.

All that being said, it’s worth considering what your goals are, and evaluating whether your actions will actually get you there. There’s been a lot of name calling, accusations of bad faith, conspiracy theories, general vitriol, and even abuse being spewed forth of late. On all fronts. I get it, sometimes that feels good, but at some point, we need to take a closer look at what we’re doing. People are talking past each other, and the rest of us are caught in the middle. Some might call this tone policing, but I think it’s how things get done.

I will leave you with this anecdote about Charles Darwin’s rhetorical strategy (emphasis mine):

Darwin, says Slatkin, was like a salesman who finds lots of little ways to get you to say yes before you’re asked to utter the big yes. In this case, Darwin invited people to affirm things they already knew, about a topic much more familiar in their era than in ours: domestic species. Did people observe variation in domestic species? Yes. And as Darwin piles on the examples, the reader says, yes, yes, OK, I get it, of course I see that some pigeons have longer tail feathers. Did people observe inheritance? Yes. And again, as he piles on the examples, the reader says yes, yes, OK, I get it, everyone knows that that the offspring of longer-tail-feather pigeons have longer tail feathers.

By the time Darwin gets around to asking you to say the big yes, it’s a done deal. You’ve already affirmed every one of the key pillars of the argument. And you’ve done so in terms of principles that you already believe, and fully understand from your own experience.

It only took a couple of years for Darwin to formulate the idea of evolution by natural selection. It took thirty years to frame that idea in a way that would convince other scientists and the general public. Both the idea, and the rhetorical strategy that successfully communicated it, were great innovations.

I’ve blogged about this before, and as I mentioned then, I think perhaps the author simplifies the inception and development of the idea of evolution, but the point holds. I’m sure Darwin and his supporters were infuriated by the initial response to their ideas, and I’m sure plenty of hateful rhetoric was employed at the time. But Darwin didn’t allow it to spiral, he knew evolution was important enough that it would have to be accepted if he communicated it in such a way that people could accept it. I, for one, am glad he did. I don’t know that the solution to the challenges facing the Hugo are, but I know it’s not vitriol. And I hope it doesn’t take 30 years!

3 thoughts on “Action and Reaction”

  1. The funny thing is, the quickest way to kill the Sad Puppies movement would be to read the nominations and vote.

    Also, minor commenting problem. When I got to the comment form, it showed I was signed in. When I clicked submit, I got a session timed out error, but no link to sign back in. So I signed out, then signed back in and it worked. Again, this is very minor, but thought you should know in case that’s not supposed to happen.

  2. Yeah, I feel like a successful No Award campaign would just feed into the SP’s victimology. I’m still at least a little hopeful that next year’s Sad Puppies campaign will be less focused (with either a much larger reading list, or just a general focus on participation over specific recommendations), but I can’t see that happening if No Award becomes a big thing. And I have no idea how Vox would respond to, well, anything.

    I just had that issue with the commenting right now, though mine was just a little js popup, so I was left on this page and was able to sign out and sign back in pretty easily. Awkward for sure, and I’ll take a look to see if there’s any settings I can tweak, but it’s a pretty arcane system (at least, from my perspective), so don’t get your hopes up:) I’m just glad comments are able to come through at all at this point!

  3. I suspect Vox has already decided on “burn it down” as his preferred option. If all the people upset at the SP movement responded rationally, though…I don’t know if he would back down or push harder. I can see him demanding an apology, and he probably deserves one considering how he’s been treated. But he also owes one for bringing gasoline to the fire.

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