If a civilization is to be judged on how concerned it is with its weakest members, then we are becoming very civilized indeed. If college campuses are the bellwethers of the future, then we can look forward to a future of restricted speech and thought designed to preserve the feelings of those who perceive themselves to be weak. Crusaders for "social justice" will punish every microaggression with career-ending charges, and the bounds of what one is allowed to say without fear of reprisal will narrow further.
Meanwhile, the Internet's worldwide range and anonymity allow sociopaths with free time to viciously attack those they want to injure–and allow those who want to make a career of being victims to claim they were attacked. The cruel and sadistic exist in small numbers in all groups and all classes, but their evil actions are used to justify broad-brush condemnations of all members of groups.
This new children's crusade allows its participants to believe they are defending the weak and defenseless from bullies, with their favorite being the supposed malefactors of the Patriarchy–cis-white-male-heteronormative men. Since a few men in the past treated women and minorities badly, all men must atone and recognize that being male is inherently oppressive. Escaping this judgment, in their view, requires a male to adopt wholesale every cherished belief of the crusade–that there are no gender-based aggregate differences, that unequal outcomes always imply unequal treatment, that women should achieve equal numbers and pay in every job field (unless, of course, it's undesirable or dirty work.)
This is identity politics, with government viewed as a tool to right wrongs and redistribute a fixed pie of wealth and respect so that everyone gets an equal amount. The pie apparently creates itself, and asking for accountability and productivity in return for a greater share is viewed as racist, sexist, and probably fascist.
Most of the people in the movement haven't thought it through and have a cartoon view of good guys vs. bad guys. They think they are defending the weak against bullies. In so doing, they lose empathy for those different from themselves, just as they believe their enemy has. The loathed Others are the mass of hateful and ignorant who disagree with any element of their program, and are labeled the Red Tribe, Red States, Republicans, traditionalists, conservatives, and so on. Meanwhile, political manipulators use their feelings to get their votes and use them as foot soldiers in bringing down opponents. The control of public education by statists has reduced the level of understanding of civics and constitutional government among young people, with a focus on climate change, recycling, and inequality all designed to make solution by government action seem necessary, if only inconvenient naysayers could be eliminated. The executive-branch use of Title IX warning letters to enforce the fake "rape culture" panic on campuses receiving public money is another tool being used to squelch free speech. When the problem is uncontrolled Other People Doing Bad Stuff, you vote in the people who promise to control them, and those politicians have an incentive to exaggerate problems further rather than help resolve them.
What does this have to do with science fiction? Much of this culture war has appeared in the 2015 Hugo controversy. A friend recently sent me a call for submissions to a new 'zine focused on LGBTQ-etc. topics and authors, and I considered what I might submit, since I love getting a microvalidation. Then I realized how retrograde the whole idea is to me.
Sexuality, romance, and pair bonding are always going to be elements of many engaging stories, but these problems are not different with LGBTQ-etc. folks, though there are unique riffs based on being a minority or less understood. I guessed I was gay very young—like ten years old—but I always felt so different from everyone else in so many ways that that additional difference seemed minor. Readers should normally be able to get into any character’s problems, no matter what their flavor. I searched for gay characters when they were rare and it was always delightful to find them written well, as courageous people with problems and not sad-sack victims. But there are plenty now, sometimes too idealized and fighting cartoon villains—demonizing cis-het-white-males is just as bad as demonizing gays was. Making a character's gayness the central theme is odd now, like having a female character whose only goal is marrying well in a modern context. Just not that interesting to me.
The drama around the AIDS epidemic, of course, is a worthy subject. Here's the trailer for a friend’s documentary making the film-festival circuit; it's about gay men who thought they were going to die moving to Palm Springs and living long and productive new lives. Touching: Desert Migration. I know most of the people in it, though I avoided the whole thing by leaving Boston when my friends started to die, and I was lucky and shy enough to not be directly touched.
In my MIT creative writing courses, I had a friend, David Feinberg, a geeky über-Jewish boy who tried to write like James Joyce. After he left school and moved back to NYC, he started writing about his life with AIDS. Freed of the urge to be “literary,” he wrote passionately and hilariously of what he was going through. See David Feinberg—he had a crush on me in school which I avoided seeing.
There were four of us in that group, all taking the advanced physics course and creative writing as freshmen. Alanna Connors was the beautiful blond girl from Connecticut, super-smart. If I had one last thought of being straight, it was because of her! She did some great work in astrophysics and died recently after years struggling with breast cancer.
The last was Dave M, who got me my first permanent job at BBN Labs. He’s the only one left, other than me, and spent a lot of his time promoting home schooling from the progressive perspective.
I guess my reaction to “kids these days” and their desire to protect every special snowflake is based on living through the crucible of real trouble and life-and-death problems. Having a special LGBTQ zine is an idea of the past, that we needed protected spaces to get our writing published. It’s not true and it’s self-ghettoizing. Every second spent attacking people for “microaggressions” is time not spent doing the productive things that would better their lives. It’s good to have empathy and make kindness toward abstract others a guide; it’s bad to stomp all over well-meaning real people for being insufficiently perfect, thus putting them outside the pale of your empathetic concern.
Science fiction has always been about freeing the mind to imagine, and one of the key take-aways has been seeing inside people to understand their actions and motivations, to not judge others based on their superficial characteristics. Even the most alien society can be understood based on the underlying biology, economy, and culture, and empathy for even the strangest Other is possible.
But victim-based identity movements require villains, who must be dehumanized and presumed hateful and ignorant, if not actively and intentionally evil. Feminism began as a movement to get equal rights and respect, but even in its early days, parts of it were aimed at getting special treatment for women—lesser prison sentences, exemption from the draft, alimony by default in divorce, child custody preferences. While one arm of the movement got the vote for women and opened up all fields to accomplished female candidates, the other created preferences for women based on their supposed fragility and the sentimental desire to protect potential and real mothers from hardship.
Today's third-wave feminist activists denigrate women who choose to be full-time mothers or step away from the professional treadmill, and actively oppose men with what I will gingerly call "masculine virtues," like self-defense, foresight, hard manual labor, and profitable enterprise. They believe women who want to enter tough, high-commitment fields deserve to be represented in equal numbers regardless of their willingness to sacrifice personal and family time, because employment is just booty to be divided and spread equally. Government should, if not directly employing everyone, force private companies to change the requirements of jobs so that women can have it their way. And to a great extent this is happening, with female-dominated HR departments gradually reforming big workplaces to take away rewards from the most-productive to make the diversity numbers look good. Some of these reforms have obviously been good for society and business, but once started, the push for change continued, and now it may be past the point of diminishing returns to the point where it damages us all. A software company that has a diverse workforce of excellent programmers will do well; if the same company is forced to implement employment quotas to make its workforce match some ideal race, sex, and age goals, it will be crippled compared to its competitors.
A significant chunk of the population is still guided by the sentiment that women are weak and need more protection. These people are the Baptists in a bootleggers-and-Baptists coalition that unites to give statists more and more power to meddle and regulate, with the bootleggers being political parties that use these sentiments to justify their social engineering. Every new law and regulation is an opportunity for graft and extracting campaign contributions from businesses who want to be left alone or mold the law and regulations to hurt their competitors more, and every new edict (beyond dealing with obvious externalities like pollution) decreases the total wealth and growth rate of the economy. Politicians whip up fear—fear of terrorists, illegal immigrants, "the 1%," sexist men, authoritarian Christianists, whatever works—to gain power, and then shy away from any actual solutions so they can repeat these emotional hooks for the next election. "Fear is the Mindkiller"—make someone afraid, and you weaken their reasoning power.
Bringing it back to SF, there's now a large number of writers who are supported by jobs in academia, government, or the literary publishing world, which tends to be Progressive and to denigrate blue-collar, military, pop cinema, or other less literary science fiction. As the number of participants in the community who are supported by political and committee decisions grows vs. those who make their living in the market, the tendency to elevate less accessible litfic, especially if it supports a Progressive worldview, also grows. To pretend this is not so is to miss why people on both sides of the Hugo kerfuffle have felt disrespected and threatened. Throw in the actions of Internet trolls and chaos-provocateurs, and you have a recipe for polarization.
Respecting differences in culture is what we are supposed to be about, and giving fellow fans the benefit of the doubt and not condemning them for their "unenlightened" culture and story preferences would be a good start toward healing the rift caused by the Hugo kerfuffle.
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