I told George R. R. Martin I’d be writing this post — as a result of some of the polite dialogue we had at his LiveJournal page. His basic question to me was, “How can you, as a guy in an interracial marriage, put up with some of the racist and sexist stuff (a certain person) writes on his blog?” I thought this a valid question. How indeed? I didn’t have the space on LiveJournal to unpack all of my thoughts and feelings on the dread ism topic, so I thought I would do it here.
When I was a teenager, concepts like racism and sexism seemed easy to understand. People who are sexist, think the opposite gender are inferior human beings. People who are racist, think people of opposite ethnicities are inferior human beings. Both concepts are morally wrong. What seemed obvious, was obvious. I’d had this idea spoon-fed to me since I was old enough to go to school, so I went about my life generally trying to be the kind of guy who avoided ist stuff so as to not be guilty of the ominous ism label.
After I got married, though, the actual complexity of racism, sexism, and other, similar things, started to become clearer. Especially since nobody can quite arrive at a consensus as to what constitutes ism. There is no agreement. Simply a spectrum, from hot to cold. At the cold end you have people who give tremendous benefit of the doubt to almost any word or action. No harm, no foul. It takes a lot for such people to begin using the ist andism labels. Conversely, at the hot end are the people who see ist and ism at the drop of a hat. Everyone and everything is freighted with ist and ism. There are none who are “clean” and all are guilty.
Perhaps ironically — for an interracially married guy — while the social drama of our era has ratcheted toward the hot, I’ve slowly found myself drifting toward the cool. Not because I think ist and ism do not exist — they do. But because I think a lot of what we label as racist and sexist is actually culturalist tribalism. Even America’s dyed-in-the-wool progressives are prone to this one. Ask a Seattle coffee house progressive what she thinks of Alabama “cracker” folk. Or ask a New York socialist atheist for his opinion on conservative Utah Mormons. You will find, often, that even the minds who proclaim themselves to be the most open and the most tolerant, have sharp limits. Because even though multiculturalism is practically an iron-clad gospel at this point, everyone can identify tribes they are distrustful of, if not openly hostile toward.
So, as I enter my fifth decade of life, I strongly suspect ethnicity is — very often — the lesser part of it. Gender too. Ethnicity and gender are flags. Markers. Identifiers. If ever some other flag or marker offsets the original, the equation changes.
One example that leaps to my mind: back when I was an NCO, I had a Small Group Leader (SGL) at one of the Army’s NCO schools who had emigrated out of central Africa, come to the U.S., and joined the U.S. military. He said that he found it very interesting, as a born African, trying to navigate among American blacks and whites alike. Based purely on how he looked, he would be treated one way — right up until he opened his mouth. At which point his accent identified him as something remarkably other than black American. Whites who had been cool to him (in the literal sense) would sometimes warm up. Blacks who had been warm, would cool down. Sometimes, even turn hostile?
Another example: depending on how my wife styles her hair, she can (and does) pass for hispanic, black, or pacific islander. Yet, growing up in Hawaii among a family of all-adopted brothers and sisters, she found herself constantly at war with the children outside her home: white kids, Japanese Hawaiian kids, and full-blooded Hawaiian kids. She experienced constant fist-fights. Brutal stuff. Up through high school. Why couldn’t she pass through all of this unscathed? What made her so different that no ethnic group — save the Chinese Hawaiians — were reliably safe for her?
Getting back to my SGL at the NCO school, something else he said struck me strongly: nobody in America really knows ethnic strife the way he saw it, because he literally witnessed portions of his family wiped out by what essentially amounted to tribal warfare. To white American eyes, there’d have been no discernible difference between the people killing each other. But the Africans themselves knew the difference, and considered it a difference worth murdering each other over.
The SGL in question therefore found 21st century American racial tension to be both familiar, and also utterly foreign. Small potatoes, compared to his experience.
So how do you overcome small-potatoes tribalism? Sometimes, by simply creating a new over-arching tribe from whole cloth.
In the U.S. military, we endure a breaking-in period known as Initial Entry Training — boot camp. It’s specifically designed to make everyone look the same, talk the same, and to a certain extent, think the same. We are thus inculcated (as opposed to acculturated) into the new “tribe” to the extent that prior ethnic, religious, lingual, and other barriers, become offset. Not erased entirely, but offset. We adopt a new tribal identity. One that can become so powerful, men and women from different parts of the country, even different parts of the world, identify so strongly with the single tribe that we find these bonds stronger than almost anything else. Sometimes, even stronger than blood or birth. We wear the uniforms, we share the experiences. We talk a certain way. Look at life through a certain lens.
We can also speak to shared hardship. In fact, there is practically no greater social glue, than to make a group of individuals all go through the same shitty thing — together.
This is usually why U.S. military veterans — any branch, any era — can almost instantly find common ground. Despite all the many things in their lives which might differentiate them.
Folks, I believe strongly that all of this is wired into us. As author and philosopher Steven Barnes consistently says: every person is built to be tribal. We can’t escape it. It’s part of who we are. If you ask Steve, he’ll say that someone is “awake” when (s)he makes a conscious effort to be aware of inherent tribal tendencies, and shape them (or even eschew them) for the sake of nobler sentiments, nobler goals, and a greater self-awareness that goes above and beyond identity.
And make no mistake: identity is at the heart of the social discussion in the 21st century. To include identity politics.
So, when the news makes noise about some racist police officer shooting an umarmed black teenager, or rapper Azealia Banks talks about how she hates white midwestern Americans, I think in the back of my mind: There it is — there is the tribalism. In Azealia’s case, she is merely using words. The cop is killing a person. But in both instances, the root of the problem goes back to tribalism. For the cop, young black teenage males represent a “tribe” of troublemakers, gangbangers, hoodlums, petty thieves, and drug dealers. All dangerous, and all untrustworthy. On the flip side, for many black Americans, white cops also represent a kind of “tribe” which is also dangerous, hair-trigger, not to be trusted, prone to never giving the benefit of the doubt, predictably suspicious, and so forth. Both “tribes” have valid historical evidence for how they feel about the other tribe.
And both tribes key on external markers, when identifying the other tribe. Flags which can be offset by contra-flags.
Consider: black teen male walking down a neighborhood street, when a white off-duty cop steps to the door. The teen is wearing long-hung blue jeans, work boots with the laces missing or untied, the top of his boxer shorts is visible, he has on a hoodie, and a baseball cap with the visor cocked at forty-five degrees. What are the off-duty white cop’s assumptions — regarding the young black male and his potential tribe?
Consider again: black teen male walking down a neighborhood street, this time dressed in a baby blue oxford shirt, pressed cotton slacks, matte-shine black business loafers, wearing glasses, and carrying a book bag. Will the same off-duty cop’s assumptions change? Yes, or no.
Now, flip it.
Black college student walking home from campus at night, sees an old white guy sitting near a lamp post, wearing a tattered U.S. Army surplus jacket, soiled pants, with a long greasy beard on his face, and long greasy hair shrouding his head, while he’s holding a paper sack with a bottle neck sticking out of it. What’s the tribal assumption, on the part of the black college student?
Try again: black college student walks home from campus, sees the same old white guy, but this time the old man’s been washed up, his beard is gone, and his hair is neatly combed and trimmed, plus he’s in a new suit with an expensive tie, and his eyes are alert and sober. Different tribal assumption, right?
See, all of us do this every day without even thinking about it. Who’s in my tribe? Are you in my tribe? And if you don’t look like you’re in my tribe, are you in a tribe that’s cool with my tribe, or un-cool with my tribe? Maybe you don’t seem to be in my tribe, until we talk about a shared interest or a shared experience — something not obvious on the surface — and we instantly discover the tribal bond? What if we think we share a tribal bond, but conversation reveals we’re on opposite ends of something? Like religion, or politics? Does the division strain or sever the tribal identification?
My SGL from NCO school became out-tribe (for some black Americans) when he talked, because his African accent contradicted his physical flag: his ethnicity. He was not “of the tribe” many black Americans thought him to be.
My wife was also not “of the tribe” when young. She didn’t fit. The way she talked, marked her as out-tribe. The way she looked, also marked her as out-tribe. There was no tribe for her. Kids being kids, they made the question it into a physical confrontation. My wife being my wife, she finished every fight they started. Dozens of times. Her childhood doesn’t have many happy memories in this regard. And to this day, there are still ways she (and we, as a couple) are deemed out-tribe.
For instance: No matter which state we’ve lived in, grocery stores are a common place to find we’re out-tribe. If there is a white family at the check-out line ahead of us, and the white clerk is chatty and cheerful with that family, as soon as my wife and I show up, the clerk goes cold. Minimal interactivity. No overt words or actions of hostility. Just . . . a palpable withdrawing. For whatever reasons, my wife and I are suddenly out-tribe. Either because the clerk is making assumptions about my wife, or making assumptions about both of us because we’re together, but we look different.
That doesn’t happen every day. But I’ve seen it happen enough to know it’s a thing. And no, I don’t think these clerks are doing it consciously. It’s tribal.
And tribalism is everywhere. It’s who we are. On every continent.
When I went to Italy with the Army, I discovered that the northern Italians often had certain feelings toward the southern Italians, and vice versa.
Soccer (football) fans in Europe and the UK are notorious for being tribal to the point of death and violence.
Hell, ask Boston Red Sox fans and New York Yankees fans about their “tribes” in the sports world.
And we are all actively working to create tribes amongst ourselves all the time. Sports, music, clothing, enthusiasms like video games and comic books and fiction. Do you love a thing? Do others love the same thing? Are you now a kind of tribe? If you love the thing enough, do you begin to speak a similar language, reference the same touchstones — a touchstone being an object or a concept or an idea that is familiar to everyone? Do you begin to create in-jokes and humor specific to the group? Do you have closeness that cuts across other differences that might separate you?
Most of us in the developed West seem to pretend that we’re beyond tribalism, or that tribalism is somehow primitive.
I think it’s part of being human, and helps us to define who and what we are.
In both good ways, and bad.
Consider tribalism in Science Fiction & Fantasy: SF/F.
Moskowitz versus the Futurians? The Campbellians versus the New Wave? Worldcon versus Sad Puppies?
The Fandom (capital f) that created the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) were a tribe so dedicated to their shared enthusiasm, they formalized it. Gave it rules and expectations. An institution was born. New people coming into the institution had to be inculcated much as anyone joining a religion or the military might also be inculcated. Totems (like the Hugo awards) were erected and celebrated.
And Sad Puppies 3 came to the “tribe” in 2015, wearing baggy pants below the waist, visible boxer shorts, untied work boots, and a hat cocked at forty five degrees. Or, if you prefer, Sad Puppies 3 pulled Worldcon over on the highway: maglite aimed through Worldcon’s driver’s-side window, while Sad Puppies 3 asked for license and registration.
The reaction — especially among certain vocal members of Fandom — was less than enthused.
“The tribe! The tribe is at stake! Invaders have come! Protect the totem! Save the totem!”
Now, I’ve tried to explain this before: a huge part of the deal with this whole nerd fight, is that the Hugo awards don’t just brand as “The award of the Worldcon tribe.” The Hugos (and the Worldcon tribe alike) brand the Hugo as the award for the entirety of SF/F: books, stories, movies, television, music, art, you name it. This is not just the totem of the single SF/F tribe. This is the totem of all the SF/F tribes.
But the single tribe (Worldcon) wants the exclusive right to decide how the totem gets distributed — to which tribe members, and for what kinds of work.
It’s the totem of all, but to be decided by only some.
That — right there — is the root of the conflict. Totem of of all, decided by some. Sad Puppies 3 (and to a certain extent, Sad Puppies 2 and Sad Puppies 1) made the audacious claim that the totem for all, should be decided by all. Anyone willing to pay the poll tax (Worldcon membership) should have a say. We invited everyone to the democratic process. We didn’t care who was or was not in the “tribe” of World Science Fiction Society. This is the totem of all! And the rules pretty much make it so that all can participate!
But the Worldcon tribe — or at least certain vocal members within the tribe — have gone full-retard-tribal about the affront to “their” award, and “their” convention. So it’s tribe-vs-tribe. Are you in-tribe or out-tribe? How can anyone tell? Are you “of the body” of the tribe? Were you inculcated? No? Then what the hell are you doing coming to our tribal ground and fucking with our totem? It’s ours, dammit! Not yours! Ours!!
Protestations about propriety are merely bureaucratic dressing for tribal reactionary mud-slinging.
Mud-slinging which was taken to the broader media by a few tribe-members determined to “nuke” us invaders: Sad Puppies.
But not just us alone. We were almost incidental. The partisans of the Worldcon tribe had a more serious foe in mind.
Because of all the things most frightening to the Worldcon tribe, the worst are the Visigoths of Vox Day. Not just an out-tribe, Vox and his fans represent an explicitly war-like and hostile tribe, come to seize the totem by brute means. So, some of the Worldcon tribe said, “No, we will destroy the totem first, before we let the Visigoths have it!” To which the Visigoths and their heathen king Vox replied, “If you destroy it this year, we will most certainly destroy it next year — and there is nothing you can do to stop us!”
Now, the heathen king is terrifying to the Worldcon tribe. He is a literal barbarian. He talks and walks and threatens like a barbarian. He’s not precisely the guy anyone planned on walking through the democratic door. But because the Hugo voting process isdemocratic, nobody can be barred for purely tribal reasons. You pay your poll tax, you get a vote. The Worldcon tribe stares at both Sad Puppies 3 and the Rabid Puppies with equal dismay.
Me? I’m not in it to destroy anything.
I just want the totem to reflect the wider influence of the big world of various tribes who all have claim to it. Because that’s where I came from. Out there. Not the “inside” Worldcon tribe. I’m from the wilderness tribes who knew nothing of conventions or Fandom (big F) in our youth. We simply liked what we liked, and we were fans — because nobody could tell us not to be fans. And I maintain — still — that there is nobody to tell us we’re not fans. So the totem is ours too. We have claim on it. It is “the most prestigious award” for everybody. And everybody agrees on this.
Either that, or change the branding, and call the Hugos, “The little award, for the littlecrowd at Worldcon.”
Heck, while we’re at it, stop calling it Worldcon. Any given Comic Con can boast a bigger world-wide attendance than even the Worldcons done outside North America.
And stop pretending you care about “diversity” when the Worldcon tribe reacts with extreme revulsion any time truly different people want to come have a seat at the table.
Maybe call it Legacycon, to reflect that it’s the legacy gathering of legacy fans who trace their roots back to the old days? Before SF/F went big and took over the entertainment world.
Or maybe call it Stuffycon: to reflect the hoity toity attitudes of the taste-makers who want to be sure the “wrong” kinds of fans aren’t voting in the “wrong” kinds of books, art, and stories.
Or maybe just be wholly transparent and call it White American Liberals Con — An inclusive, diverse place where everyone talks about the same things, has the same tastes, votes the same way, and looks at the world through the same pair of eyes. Whitelibbycon.With the trophy: whitelibbyrocket.
But wait, I am showing my tribal ass with these comments. See? See how that happens so fast? It’s tricksy, I tell you! Tricksy.
Because the ultimate question in a polyglot society — or a polyglot field of the arts — is whether or not you (and your tribe) can make room in your hearts and minds for the people from the other tribes. Are the other tribes really dangerous? Or are you simply worried that by letting the outside tribes mingle with the inside tribe, you will lose the authenticity and flavor that you believe makes your tribe special? How much are you willing to sacrifice to preserve your culture, versus allowing your culture to mix with others, and blend? We know these fears. They perk up every time a new wave of immigrants comes. Doesn’t matter if its Irish, German, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, or Mexican. People become very upset with the idea that the new tribe is going to wash away everything about the old tribe. Can the new tribe be assimilated? What if they won’t assimilate, what then? Is there any chance for harmony?
Think on that, oh ye purists of Worldcon.
Steve Davidson and Teresa Nielsen-Hayden talk like anti-Amnesty Republicans!
Now, I won’t speak for the heathen king or the riders of his war elephants. I will only speak for Sad Puppies 3.
Many of us were already “of the tribe”, or are at least capable of passing as tribe members when we want to. We know the lingo, we know the touchstones, we are familiar with the history. Maybe we don’t religiously attend Worldcon — maybe we don’t even do cons very much, because of travel and expenses — but this field is our field. These arts are our arts. We just want a seat at the table. And we want the totem to reflect the existence of all the many venerable pros and fans who have done every bit as much to keep this field alive — over the last three decades — as anyone in the Worldcon tribe proper.
Uncle Timmy? Kevin J. Anderson? Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show?They are entirely part of the fabric of the giant and expanding quilt of Science Fiction & Fantasy. But too many — the people who probably ought to go form Stuffycon — won’t acknowledge this.
You can’t claim your tribe is “inclusive” when you seek a laundry list of excuses to kick people (and their stuff) out of the tribe.
I’m hoping that — once the heat dies down this summer — people can be a little more “awake” in Steve Barnes’s words. A little less apt to let the tribal instinct get the better of their good intentions. And sure, maybe Larry Correia and I are guilty of it too. Certainly the out-tribe experience has created a tribalness and hostility all its own. Larry and both feel like we tried to parlay, and discovered parlay wasn’t possible. A more direct approach had to be taken. So we went to the streets and said, “Come to the democracy, one and all!”
I am sorry if the Worldcon tribe — Fandom — is unhappy. Yeah, I get it about the Visigoths. But even most of those guys aren’t bad either. They’re fans too. And the GamerGaters? Fans. Out-tribe, maybe. But fans. Don’t buy all the scary bad press. In fact, don’t buy any of the scary bad press. The other tribes love this field too. Perhaps not in precisely the same way that you do, oh tender-souled Worldcon long-timers. But then, being “awake” also means realizing that change is inevitable. If Worldcon (and the Hugos) are going to thrive, and retain relevance, the out-tribe folk are going to have to be let in the door, allowed to come to all the parties, and given a full share of the say.