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Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing

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Democracy

Back to front

There’s a lot of discussion about algorithms at the moment. Algorithms are nothing more than recipes. If people say ‘algorithm’ they normally mean the recipe for whatever they’re talking about. A mathematical algorithm for finding a solution? Think the recipe for finding the solution.

Why do I care about algorithms and whether we should really call them recipes (the analogy isn’t perfect, don’t @me, I’m quite aware)? Mainly because the discussion about algorithms in the public sphere relates almost exclusively to social media and how these processing recipes lead users to ever more extreme and unpleasant content.

I’ve been quite concerned with this book over the last few days. Reminded as I was by a lecture by the author in which they said something I had entirely missed in my general thinking about the kind of content we’re shown online. I am almost embarrassed to admit it as well – because I like to think I ruminate on economics quite a lot.

As a reminder, the book is called: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power and is written by Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff has written a lot about this subject but this book is (despite the cover being uninspiring) a very good piece of work.

I don’t want to talk too much about the book except I want to draw out one key idea because it should turn your world upside down a bit.

First though. We have been told all over the place by tech-bros, concerned citizens (I’m in this category), opinion piece writers and others that the algorithms which we look at blaming for the slow radicalisation of people as bland and formerly innocent as our grandmothers, our friends and our children are i) in need of fixing and ii) often beyond understandding.

We’re told that these algorithms are often the product of unconscious bias (such as when facial recognition software didn’t recognise PoC as human or when Google associated PoC with gorillas in image search software). We’re told it’s a side effect but one which makes them money and so they’re loathe to change their ways. We’re told it’s the tail wagging the dog – unfortunate but fixable.

Zuboff dismisses this idea and reminds us these companies have made their fortunes by learning about us. So far so not surprising. Yet Zuboff then reminds the economically literate among us what that learning is good for. It’s not good for knowing what we did in the past because we can’t make money from that. Nor is it good for knowing what we’re doing now – again, I can make money on what you’re interested in NOW but it’s not the prize. The real prize from this learning is to know what you’re trending towards tomorrow – because then I can make real money from knowing your future tastes and preferences.

Zuboff then reminds us about the point of advertising – not simply to let us know a product is available, but to create a felt need we didn’t know we had and then sell us the solution for that sudden new found desire.

In short, these algorithms are designed to do two things.

  1. They’re designed to predict what we’ll want to buy tomorrow
  2. They’re designed to push us into buying products we don’t know we needed today.

Algorithmic drift into showing you more extremist material such as racist content, anti-vax nonsense, anti-elite conspiracies serve the two goals above. Why? Because these drifts don’t exist in a vacuum – social media companies (and let’s be honest, we’re only really talking Google and FB in liberal societies) are selling these predictions to companies – telling them they can guarantee purchases and eyeballs on adverts. Deliberate drift to extreme material is proven to guarantee both of those things.

Furthermore, there is an argument which goes like this: SM companies could see extremist material was both attractive to many people and a direction society was moving in, in part because of their exposure via SM companies’ activities, and they had a choice:

i) do they change their business model to avoid these excesses, or

ii) do they lean into extremism knowing their activity will appreciably shift society that way and thereby increase their revenue

Zuboff, among others, suggest only the second of those two options can be true without regulation.

So in the discussion around free speech this week (and possibly next?) you’ll see lots of back and forth over whether private companies have the right yadda yadda yadda. What you won’t see (yet) is much on whether these companies deliberately created these environments exactly with the intent of fostering extreme content to increase revenues.

My proposition is this: the tail never wagged the dog. The algorithms we’ve seen were designed explicitly to monetise user data by predicting their behaviour and nudging them towards it in order to create opportunities for companies they were pitching their services to. This has always been the dog wagging its tail.

Over the next few months as regulation becomes a more central concern of liberal governments (with the possible exception of the current far right UK conservative government) one key plank of companies’ defence will be it wasn’t their fault – they were, at worst, as surprised as us by the outcomes. Do not believe them. This isn’t about free speech – that is a distraction – and a different argument. This is about whether companies with our personal lives stored on their servers should be required to treat that data not as if it’s their never ending gold mine but as if it’s something to which privacy and political standards around propaganda and manipulation should be applied.

Memetic Defences (part 2)

Or how to tell a different story to build the world you want

Important point – if you’re interested in the strategies for making the world a better place, skip down to Article one and read from there.

Part one of this pair of essays was essentially the groundwork – laying out my thinking on memetic defences (and I swear that’s the last time I’ll use that phrase). I wanted to explore some of what we think we mean when we talk about open societies vs. closed and whether open societies are really as weak to malign influences as we can sometimes assume. The short answer is that we’re not and the virulent policing done by closed societies is really just a sign of how weak they are compared to open societies. It’s the difference between consent driven policing and marshal law.

This second part is concerned with taking our thinking forward and asking (and partially answering) one big question – how do we actively defend the features of open societies we are generally fond of? Not least, the openness, the honesty and the reflection I discussed in part 1?

I would like to say it’s all story – and if you know me in meatspace you’ve probably heard me say this a few times. Except I want to step away from that because I no longer believe it’s entirely true.

There are two enemies of the open society – the internal and the external. For example, we can easily identify Russia as an external existential threat to the European/Anglo-Saxon project of open societies. They have been busy poisoning and murdering their enemies in our territories and funding misinformation, lies and political operators driven only by their own benefit. And it works because the internal enemies of the open society are those who i) wish to make themselves invulnerable to the accountability built into open societies while ii) reaping their benefits. We can and should also identify other specific external national voices as opponents (rather than enemies) of the open society and they are inter alia China and certain theocracies in the Middle East. China is not an opponent in the same sense as Russia because their opposition comes from their own view of how the world should be constituted – which is deeply nationalistic and centred on the benefits of a close society – which is, by definition, against the promotion of open societies. Could they become antagonistic rather than expansionary? Of course, but we’re little different and hence I don’t see that as the same problem right now as I do the internal enemies of open societies we have here in the UK and the USA.

Our real enemies here are internal. I’d love it to be otherwise but I can’t see anyone really being as threatening to the idea of equality, openness, honesty and reflection as those who oppose from within the remit of the societies we live within.

What is my reasoning for this? We start with a government who is aping the populist, truth independent and deeply corrupt practices of self enrichment at the cost of all else we have seen promoted by the republican administration in the US. The Goodlaw Project’s identification of the misuse of public funds during COVID has been exhaustive and thorough and has revealed with startling clarity that a certain class of already very rich white publicly educated upper class English people has simply used a national crisis as an opportunity to make out like bandits and rob their constituents without even bothering to deny their actions. Furthermore we have literally seen (with the Priti Patel and Dominic Cummings fiascos) bald statements from senior government officials that the law only applies to others and exceptions should be made for them. This isn’t just an attack on truth, openness and reflection by stymieing its operation, it is a stab to its heart by simply ignoring it as something important.

Now, the point of this post was to talk about ways forward, not to lay out the crimes of dipshits who care nothing for their constituents but only for the people they serve.

So what do we do about this?

Well, it does start with story but it doesn’t end there. Everything is about the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell one another. A fantastic example is from Mark Carney’s Reith lectures this year where he reiterates research done by Michael Sandel and others around the effectiveness of penalties on bad behaviour. What they showed was what penalties act for some, particularly those with resources, not as a social stigma but as a form of permission to act badly. The most famous of these studies was one where a nursery found parents were coming late to pick up their children. They instituted a fine system but found MORE parents were coming late rather than fewer. It turned out the fines let parents feel ok about coming late because it acted not as a penalty but as a fee. Poor parents were penalised, rich parents felt they were getting an additional service.

It was better when people were told off and asked not to do it, when people were encouraged when they did the right thing and, most importantly, when other parents told latecomers they were in the wrong. I have seen this first hand and it guides certain small activities I always engage in. For instance, I always says thank you to people who are serving me in a shop. I always ask how they are and I have taken every opportunity to intervene when I see them being mistreated.

I always say thank you to people who stop for me as a pedestrian at a pelican crossing because I have seen enough instances of people not stopping to mean I want those who do stop to know it’s a good thing they’ve done (even if they’re just obeying the law).

I try, in my normal life, to normalise praise and encouragement for people who do what they should do (even if doing it is mandatory). Why? Because I want them to have the story that doing the right thing is praiseworthy.

Article one: we do not praise people enough. And we certainly don’t praise people enough for doing what they should be doing anyway. I have little evidence to say it works except, for instance, this: I run a lot. I say hello to everyone I meet. And now, people I pass on my regular runs say hello to me first. It’s a change of atmosphere. It is the same with walking the dog – my wife always says hello and we have discovered some lonely people who now stop to talk to us every time. This is simple community building but it’s much deeper than that. So. Normalise praising one another and praise one another for doing the right thing. If they say ‘I’m only doing what I should,’ then amazing, social norm achieved!

Article two: give air time to those who tell stories of the world the way you want it to be. Tell those stories yourself. Retell them to others. We give too much airtime to people who upset us – be they politicians, racists, TERFs or others. STOP IT. We should be aware of them but we should NOT be giving them airtime. We should, instead, be telling the stories of the good we see in the world, of the wonderful things we’ve seen happen and how we came across them. The more we nurture these good things the more they will grow and fill the airwaves. Sometimes, sure, we have to directly oppose those who would do us harm and I’m all for that, but that’s an endgame. For as much as possible we should be telling stories of blessing and encouragement to those around us. Ok, so here’s two examples. I’m a MASSIVE fan of both the new series of She Ra and of Star Trek Discovery. I’m a fan both because they’re brilliant pieces of fiction but also because they tell stories about a world which exemplifies the kind of values I want to see normalised where I live. It’s also an important strategy for ensuring the Overton window moves in the direction we want it to. Every time we highlight something bad rather than tell the story of something good we are actually doing the work of those who hate for them because exposure normalises.

Article three: there is no ‘winning’, there is only constant recreation of the culture we want to live in. Too often I grow tired of seeing ‘nothing change’ but the truth of the matter is, if I stop talking about the world I want to see, stop talking about the way I want it to be and stop acting to make it so, then it will change and not for the better because others are every bit as invested as I am in remaking the world in a way that suits them. The problem is they’re White supremacists, Indian Nationalists, German Fascists, TERFS, whatever. And this really comes to a deeper point – we need to normalise being politically active. I don’t just mean being a member of a political party – I mean being active in your community, being active in making your voice heard – whether that’s writing to your MP, joining committees at work, creating silly things like running clubs of movie nights or whatever it might be. We have seen in the post war dividend and the rise of corporate globalisation the downside that we’ve been alienated from our political lives. We have them but it works best for certain powerful vested interested if you and I don’t actually act as political beings – because it then leaves others unopposed. These days we tend to regard being political as a thing which we add on to who we are. Instead we should normalise the fact that all humans, all stories, all activity, is political in nature and act accordingly. It might seem tiring but it’s really only tiring when we try to add it on rather than letting it be part of who we are. If you have children and want them to have the best world possible? Then you need to be political and you need to help them understand that homo sapiens is a political animal, not a happiness seeking one.

Finally – Article four: Protect the stories you want to see triumph. Too often in my life I’ve seen ‘allies’ expect me to do the work, to fight the fight and allow them the space to say they’re on my side. That’s not enough. Not for me and certainly not to build a society which is open. Allies need to see themselves as more than people who are alongside those under fire. The apostle Paul writes something along the lines of ‘if you succeed I celebrate with you but if you fall I suffer with you.’ Excuse my paraphrasing for my own benefit. The point is this: we are all potentially allies to someone in need of our support and we need to normalise acting as if it was us being attacked directly. I’ve often seen the counter attack ‘I don’t see any X people saying this is a problem’ by racists, sexists, whatever. This is because they’re probably too tired, depressed or frightened to speak up. The fact Allies are fighting for them is exactly what these scum bags are afraid of. We need to normalise stepping in. We need to normalise making it a social problem when racists and sexists et al express their horrendous opinions. We should have zero tolerance. We are the good samaritan. I sometimes think people get tired of it but I’ve found a way to bypass that issue. When I see these events occur? I have nurtured a sense of ‘this is my space you’ve come to shit all over and I won’t have it.’ Righteous anger is a good thing where it’s put in the service of other people’s dignity.

I hope these ideas are of some use to you. I hope you see there is always hope even when our own governments are trying to strategise against us. Thank you for reading this and see you all soon.

Following this I think there’ll be a final essay on how we engage with those who differ from us – not on social media because there’s absolutely not point with the way it’s structured and with the incentives it provides – but in the flesh. Additionally, there’s no getting away from the fact that social inequality breeds social division and unravels social cohesion. There’s definitely more to say on this too because no matter how good a story is, if it’s moving in the opposite direction to people’s experience it runs the danger of losing its power to change the world.

Memetic Defences (part 1)

I owe this post directly to ideas raised in Rian Hughes’ amazing novel XX. Basically you need to gird your loins, find a comfortable reading chair and dive in – because it’s worth your time in ideas alone.

Gushing praise aside. Are you a believer in memes? I don’t mean this in the sense of this kind of thing. I mean in the Dawkins sense of the phrase. Indeed, as much as I think Dawkins is a loathsome man, the idea of memes as cultural genes looking to reproduce and drive meaning through a substrate which can support them (i.e. brains) is one which is very popular among a certain section of popular thinking.

I’m not a meme true believer. I think the very idea is pretty easily rebutted unless you broaden out the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to such huge landscapes it effectively becomes a meaningless self-congratulatory platitude.

However. Ideas are interesting things. Philosophically, if we can avoid the onanism which tends to accompany debates around subject such as ideas by people who get paid to think about ideas for a living then there’s some rich and insightful ideas there for us to luxuriate in.

The question for me today is pretty narrow though – can an open society develop protective measures against ideas and trends which would harm it (even potentially leading to its downfall)?

To answer this question we have to make a number of assumptions – the first of which, and easily the most important, is that ideas can exist independently of people. You might say this is obviously true – books being the most easily raised example. I would suggest that’s kind of like asking if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound? If there are not people to define what a sound is then the answer is no – there is no sound, because no creature who does experience the waveforms we might call sound would articulate they heard anything. If a book exists and no one’s reading it, do the ideas in that book cease to exist?

Let’s assume they continue to exist.

The second assumption here is ideas compete with one another for supremacy. I think this one is even more tenuous. Is there such a thing as a stand alone idea? Gravity you might say, or being alive, or the taste of chocolate or wanting to avoid pain or looking after our children. Each of the preceding statements is easy to express but they are hardly self contained concepts. Gravity requires an entire education in maths and physics to grasp. Wanting to avoid pain – a common enough motivation (is it an idea?) is one which needs to be learned, needs to be communicated and then factored into a much larger social construct which says some people like some kinds of pain, some people are prepared to experience pain for others’ good and on and on. Basically, no idea arrives in the world all alone and ready to ‘compete’, it is always part of a larger structure of cultural ideas into which it fits, its edges exceptionally blurry. (I shall avoid quoting Wittgenstein here because this isn’t a postgraduate thesis).

But again, let’s assume that at some level ideas can compete, or at least overwhelm others and push them out, for instance the idea that there’s an Aether or that the British Empire existed to ‘civilise’ its inhabitants.

Why? Because when I look at censorship, particularly in places like China you could, if you were so minded, called their strategy one of memetic defence – an active strategy of promoting memes which agree with the CCP’s view of the world and actively suppressing those which don’t. Some of this is done via explicit censorship but the rest is done via the fruits of the first. The more successful you are building a wall around which ideas are acceptable and which aren’t the more the culture engaged in those ‘acceptable’ ideas will, of its own accord, defend that space. That defence will be internal, rooting out bad actors within but also outward looking by attacking those who express contrary ideas or who, gasp, attack the memetic defence itself. You could read the brigading of media companies who create content critical of China as exactly this strategy in execution. They successfully have those outside their memetic space change their behaviour, both increasing the influence of their cadre of successful ideas but also pushing back on ideas which might challenge their view of the world. It is political warfare, plain and simple and a fantastic example of ‘soft power’.

I’m not saying anything here about the exceptionally complex relationship of different political and cultural ideologies colliding – I’m make no judgements in this piece, just stating an idea using specific examples which from my (obviously politically charged position) seem like clearly demonstrating what I’m trying to say.

The question is, do liberal societies have similar defence mechanisms?

And, of course, the answer is yes. However, they might not be ones we’re all to impressed by when we start to understand what they are and how they function. So the secondary question is, are there mechanisms which we think we can deploy/develop to protect that we cherish in liberal/open societies?

The most obvious answers to the initial question is yes. History and the story of our cultural legacies act as a huge break/inertial dampener on new ideas, especially ones which don’t necessarily fit with our ideas of where we come from and what makes our culture distinct. These are also expressed in education, through the press, content generation in the media and via Government policy.

The key difference for an open society is how its openness operates. I would probably use a scale/grid where open societies value two things – honesty and reflection. The first (as we see in the current British government which lies first and denies second) is critical to continued openness because it allows the cultivation of an intellectual space where all voices matter because it’s what they have to say which is important, not who’s saying it and how closely they cleave to the way the powerful dream of the world being.

The second is also critical because open societies are characterised by their ability to integrate new ways of thinking and allow failure of policy to be addressed and learned from. High honesty and high habits of reflection are the watermarks of truly open societies.

Now. Openness and reflexiveness are two human traits which it is horribly easy to suppress. Honesty can see the messenger shot or can be actively discouraged because it shows others in bad ways. Effectively, these two habits/ideas are ones which require constant reinforcement in the sinews of the culture in which they’re being cultivated and as such, even the act of doing nothing, of staying silent around them, can lead to their weakening as desired virtues. Indeed, they’re also hard and can often be found to threaten vested interests, so political pressures can also lead to them being suppressed.

Finally, honesty and reflection do not provide easy fixes or people onto whom we can shift the blame (because they deny us the right to delude ourselves for a start) and so we see a third pressure to suppress them.

This isn’t to say they’re doomed to being crushed, it’s to say that those of us who encounter these ideas and like open societies have to always be armed to defend these traits.

I would posit that in the last twenty years we have seen a concerted attempt in Western Open societies to shift what people call the Overton Window towards a less open, less critical more deferential culture. It’s been painted as one of individualism but it’s really just a way of deconstructing social cohesion rather than proper libertarianism (even if libertarianism has grown as a result). If the Overton Window is the box which at any particular moment defines acceptable ideas, the growth of anti-intellectualism and the resurgence of fascist strands of thinking within that window are deeply worrying not just existentially but for the kinds of open society I grew up in and have been promoting throughout my life.

In some ways all I’m saying is we now have a society in which brexit and Trump’s brand of narcissistic white supremacism are not simply acceptable regardless of the clear and factual damage they do even to their adherents but are considered fundamentally centrist enough for millions of people to vote for them.

We have defence mechanisms but they appear to have failed. I’m going to stop here in this post but will come back for a second post shortly in which i discuss why they’ve failed and what we *might* be able to do about it if we’re interested in actively defending the idea of open societies, firstly internally and secondly externally.

OMG Your fandom is toxic!

CW: Strong Language.

This is my surprised face:

I know. Not that surprised. It is definitely a face though.

You might wonder what the hell I’m going on about. If you are – thank your lucky stars/elixir of life/+5 Boots of Luck you don’t and don’t go digging. Walk away from this post now.

If you do know what I’m going on about then…well I’m seeing a lot of people wondering why PoC stick around when SFF fandom is so…full of people who would like to gatekeep us into what they believe is our place.

So here’s my journey back to being an SFF nerd and why in some ways I don’t give a flying fuck what old racists, homophobes, sexists and newly minted transphobes have to say and why, in others, I want to find them and remind them, forcefully, of just how irrelevant people like me make them.

I read a lot of trashy fantasy when I was growing up and some slightly more thoughtful SF. I had a wall of the stuff and loved nothing more than reading (especially when i should have been revising. Fortunately I have a memory that won’t quit so it didn’t destroy my chances). I played a lot of D&D so had shelves of Weis and Hickman, Forgotten Realms, Drizzt Do’urden. I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay, Heinlein, EE Doc Smith, Asimov and others courtesy of my father’s book shelves.

Then I stopped reading – mainly because I had people around me who frowned upon my reading material and I totally internalised their moral panic.

I read pretty much nothing except non-fiction until I was in my early 20s and rediscovered fiction. By that time I had completed my PhD in theoretical physics and, honestly, SFF bored the hell out of me. I couldn’t get past the crap (ranging from mcguffin through to ‘you really don’t understand this at all, do you) science in most SF. I’ve grown. I don’t care about your science now – I’m interested in other things.

No. After 7 years of reading philosophy, mathematics, theology and economics I discovered I wanted nothing more than to read contemporary literary fiction. Fury by Salman Rushdie, The South American Trilogy by Louis De Berniere and my all time favourite book – the Master and Margerita.

Why? Not because they’re inherently better but because they did this thing: they explored ideas and talked about subjects I had no other outlet with which to explore what was burning in my heart. I remember reading the Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills and House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski and realising fiction could do something great and profound. It could change who I was.

I was also discovering who I was as a person (I’m a venerable 45 now so being in my 20s was literally 20 years ago). I realised after talking to a Black friend that I’d spent most of my first 20 years of life trying to be white. Which obviously hadn’t worked for me. I realised I didn’t have to be ashamed of being brown – except brown people spent quite a lot of time telling me I wasn’t brown enough.

I realised I’m what you might call Liminal. At the time I was under the impression that my multiple heritages included Indian, English, Irish, French, Italian, Polish and Jewish. The largest components being Jewish and Indian. It’s since, in the last year, turned out I have no Jewish ancestry, nor Italian, but instead have Ukrainian Roma and Egyptian to swap those out with. Yes, it’s a long story involving the Shoah and prejudice and hidden histories which only came to light as that generation died. But I digress.

I didn’t return to SFF for a couple of reasons. The writing largely bored me – at least the stuff I was coming across. Compared to Hilary Mantel or Haruki Murakami or Jose Saramago or Anthony Burgess they were but pale imitations of what fiction can achieve. But. And it’s a big but. There’s a second reason lurking underneath this difficulty in finding a connection with a subject matter that, if left alone, I get terribly excited about.

I never saw myself on the page. Fantasy seemed to be almost addicted to the prince fighting for their kingdom or a chosen one, someone with special blood doing what no one else could (why always with this bullshit?). Not only could I not understand why anyone would write romantic peans to the divine right of kings when that kind of thinking is demonstrably bad for our personal agency and for civic society but as someone with more heritages than tv channels growing up, I really couldn’t see myself in their shoes. I am NEVER going to be the chosen one. And socially? It seemed (because I had no one to educate me) that it was socially retrograde beyond just lamenting our loss of kings with absolute power. Now, looking back, I know there was more out there, but those exceptions only prove the rule for me. Fandom and fantasy writers alike were (and still are in many respects) backward looking socially. There are obviously great exceptions to this now but I’m not wasting my time listing my caveats – especially when I have entire posts about those great writers elsewhere on this site.

So what brought me back to reading SFF? Because I literally stumbled upon writers who conveyed something different. Adam Roberts, Jeff Vandermeer, Hilary Mantel (again. Check out Beyond Black or Fludd if you want to see a master at work), Peter Watts, Hannu Rajaniemi, Lavie Tidhe, Octavia Butler, Vikram Chandra, Ann Leckie and Kelly Link.

What was eye opening? They talked about experiences I had, they were concerned with struggles I knew. And the ideas! Oh the ideas.

I still didn’t engage with fandom. Honestly I didn’t really know it existed.

Then I started getting my own work published and, as part of that, started attending cons. Nineworlds was my first and I was wonderfully buddied there by long time friend David Thomas Moore. It was a wonderful experience as my first con. I’m fortunate in that I’m not particularly shy and spend most of my working life negotiating/networking, so I don’t generally feel nervous about being in places where I don’t know people. Add to that an upbringing where i moved something like 7 times before university meant I’ve lots of experience of being on the outside looking in.

However, for the most part I made some great friends there and then even more at my first FCon. People like the incomparable Rehema Njambi, Mike Brooks, Tade Thompson, Anna Stephens, Peter McLean, Adrian and Annie Tchaikovsky and Anna Smith Spark just to mention those I remember from my early days at these things. (Also Frog Croakley and Penny Reeves who were tequila buddies when we all should have known better). I found people like me and it was glorious.

Now I’ve come into fandom late. I’m a fairly intimidating looking middle aged straight man and one whose accustomed to wielding actual power in my every day life. So I’m not easily phased by micro-aggressions. I’m also not generally ready to put up with bullshit and I will and have intervened where I see it.

Honestly, most of the people I’ve come across – be they super stars of kindness and creativity like Alasdair Stuart or fiery and righteous people like Farah Mendelsohn – are people I want to be like, people I want to impress because they impress me. They’re people who I want to be around. And I *think* most of fandom is like that on a day to day basis.

However. It’s also got a decent share of utter arseholes. People who think they are empowered as gatekeepers (and might actually be) when they have no right to that power. It’s got people who think mixed race characters have no place in fiction, that women can’t write, that we should be celebrating ‘old school’ fiction where ‘men were men’. It’s got people who’ll brigade new authors they don’t like (I won’t go over my own ample -ve experiences of being an author; I’ve documented them elsewhere) because they’re women or BIPOC or whatever other ugly and spurious degree of separation they believe makes them invalid.

But worse than that, and backed up by proper research, is the fact that toxic fandom has publishing on its side. You may think that’s not true and I love you my dear summer child. The stats are clear – publishing is a white industry. The books published are, largely, by white people. And the deafening silence from the vast majority of publishers on these issues is damning.

I work for an investment bank and we’ve made more noise and taken more actual substantive actions to change our composition and structure. We, the bastions of capitalism. It may be self-serving but then if it’s self-serving for us…how much more so for an industry like publishing which on the face of it wants to be seen as progressive far more than finance.

If you have a toxic publishing industry then you will have a toxic fandom because both are predicated on structures which permit and bake into the very nature of the system these kinds of outcomes.

And you know what? I’m nervous about writing this boldly about publishing. I’m trying to sell my books and I love SFF. There is a fear in my gut that speaking clearly about the issues here, in calling them out, I damage my agent’s ability to sell my work, that I alienate readers and editors, salespeople and marketers. I want to write about slavery, about rebellion, about ordinary people doing remarkable things, about being liminal, about being Black, Indian, outside, about power and about the long tail of colonialism. I want to write about hope, about how we can make a difference. You and I. Together.

This kind of self-censorship is one I can sidestep because I have a job that pays the wages. I work as hard on my writing as anything else I do but I won’t starve if I never sell another book. I come from a position of being someone who doesn’t need this to live (despite desperately wanting to get my stories out there).

But the fear is there.

We can complain about toxic fans, about vile gatekeepers and horrendously absorbed old guard. Yet they occupy a space the system has made and the rest of us can get angry about it but while the system remains 97% white (and middle/upper class at that) then there’s very little that will change deep in the bones. As I said in my article on diversity in publishing, 3 British PoC authors in the UK’s most prestigious SF award is all the evidence you need of institutional racism.

I’m hoping the results of that work are being discussed behind closed doors because they’re not being discussed by the industry where someone like me can see them…

So am I surprised that powerful people in fandom and the industry are facilitators of toxicity? No. Is it my fandom? Not in a million years.

if you want, I’ll be over here geeking out about She Ra, The Memory Police, The Light Brigade, Cage of Souls and Fast Color. Come join me and let’s have some fun.

A way to engage and fight

I see a lot of stuff on twitter and facebook. My instagram’s a little cleaner as I curate it more. However, there’s a lot of rage inducing stuff and I was thinking about how I might be able to resist some of the horrible racist and transphobic bullshit I’m seeing out there without providing it a platform and the fresh air of publicity.

I was also shocked to see how the National Trust was, just this week, gamed by a group of white racists into making an otherwise unremarked and stupid action into a well publicised generator of outrage allowing them to harm both the National Trust as an organisation and those who objected to their actions.

So, below is my entirely fallible guide to resistance without being co-opted by people who’d rather you didn’t exist.

  1. Remember, where the argument is one of existential importance you don’t have to agree to disagree and you don’t have to try to find common ground. There is no common ground with those who would rather you didn’t exist.
  2. If you have the emotional energy then educate but if you don’t. WALK AWAY rather than engage.
  3. Call on your allies to engage on your behalf. There’s no shame and ever bit of amazingness in having those who love and support you come to stand between you and those who don’t. In old fashioned terms it’s called Intercession and it’s a powerful concept. It literally means to stand between. In fact…

Allies. Please, intercede. I rarely need saving from my enemies, especially on the internet, but I often need them to see I’m not alone. (I also need to see that as well – it’s saves my mental health). I need you to step up and say ‘no’ to those who are hateful, full of bad faith or just delighting in ‘whataboutisms’. Sometimes I need you to step up and do the emotional labour for me and other times I need you to be the one who’s patient with the well intentioned ignoramus who might be an ally if someone will spend the time. I often don’t have the time or the patience but if you can do it for me I and they will be forever grateful

  1. Don’t give oxygen to the enemy. This is different to 1. People will often say something to provoke a reaction, to provoke allies into leaping in, outraged. Don’t. Ignore them, mute them, block them. (Report them first). Every time we give an arsehole oxygen a rainbow turns to shit. The world doesn’t need to hear more about their views in order to understand they’re wrong and, frankly, the more we spread them about, the more people get used to them. Please avoid normalising their bullshit. My thoughts here are that we can tell one another to go look at something if we think it needs verifying or action actually needs to be taken, but most of the time there’s no justification for sharing it. It encourages stupid algorithms to increase the exposure that kind of content gets and lets them see us upset and outraged. Screw them and the racist/hatred filled horse they rode in on.
  2. Don’t fight alone. Again, different to 3. This is hard but super important. Remember to take care of yourself. Sometimes this means walking away but many times it means finding your support network, letting them know what’s going on, getting the emotional pain/rage/discord out of your soul and then re-engaging.
  3. Find good news. Share it. Tell stories of love, hope, victory and triumph. Of course share our sadness and rage, but we’re not them. We want a world which sees people love one another for exactly who they are, which doesn’t seek to control their expression of who they are or tell them they’re worth less. So where we see that happening? Let’s celebrate what is good.
  4. Finally and the most challenging (at least for me). Accept we’re all going to be doofus’s from time to time. Accept that we’re going to get it wrong and take it on the chin. Apologise, learn and move on. We’re all of us flawed beings and we all need one another’s acceptance and that acceptance is most needed when we get it wrong. Otherwise we end up fracturing into ever smaller and more vulnerable tribes at war with one another as much as with those who’d rather we didn’t exist. For me it’s about being gentle without losing the ability to call another out (or being called out myself). It’s about asking for stuff to stop without it being personally damaging or full of hatred.

That’s it. Peace out and love you all. Down with the nazis, Black Lives Matter, Trans women are women and trans men are men.

The financial impact of Covid 19

I’ve just read and watched the unprecedented statement from the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shortly after him, within a matter of hours or days the US Congress will come to a similar place – with their own twist on it of course.

Someone asked me just what this money is. Where does it come from and what is it really – a loan, a repo or something else, maybe money printing.
The answer is, qualitatively the same for all people putting in place fiscal stimulus right now.

It’s based on several things but probably the best analogue are the warbonds which had no maturity but would be called at the appropriate time (the last of which weren’t called until last decade). It is unprecedented. It’s also impossible to foresee the long term consequences of this. I’m sure people are thinking about them. Ironically perhaps – this is how you get inflation because supply side is going to become more and more strained the longer borders are closed and people can’t work. Prices can and will go up because of that – not because we’ve got more money. However, this will clearly be offset by people not actually having money. It’s a hugely risky strategy – but clearly the risks of doing nothing will be worse. Rishi Sunak has just promised to cover 80% of salary up to 2500 per month indefinitely. This is astonishing and tremendously welcome but tells you just how scared everyone is by the economic impact of this. If you’re not taking this seriously right now then you are, simply, a fool. A government composed of right wing nationalists and fiscal conservatives for whom Hayek and the Chicago school remain idols have just announced Universal Basic Income and an effective socialisation of salary and all of society’s risks. This is the tiger making dinner for the rabbit, it’s the coyote apologising to Roadrunner. (and for those in the know…don’t be Peck.) The term unprecedented here is both correct and far too small to underscore what’s going on.

Back to the question of ‘how do we pay for this?’

Well I mentioned warbonds earlier. Specifically those from WWI and II. They didn’t think about how they would repay – the nation was supposed to be facing an existential crisis. So they borrowed from a future they hoped was there to be borrowed from. The sense of desperation here is the same. We fail and it’s a generational depression to make the financial crisis look like losing your lunch money vs. losing your house and being forced to live on the street.

If we successfully meet this challenge? Well then we’ll worry about the implications then. What’s clear is no western country, especially the UK, will be the same after this. The US still has a journey to go on but they too will be no less different after this is over and, perhaps a silver lining, but this will be a real insulation against partisan politics and especially popularists because the virus respects nobody. It’s not an innoculation but like a large volcanic eruption can stall climate change, this can stall the growth of populism if only for a time.

I’m not sure there’s anything further to say – beyond this point everything is speculation. There are precious few voices I’m interested in listening to on this right now – I’m kind of absorbing lots and filtering 95% of it as the noise people make when they’re scared – it’s all shouting and fear and fastening onto any details which people see that appear new.

Yet the above is relevant. The government is doing something beyond the wildest fantasies of any serious economist I know – including me. You may criticise them all you like but I’ll have less respect for you if you do (see my reference to Peck). I guarantee you, you don’t know better and you wouldn’t do better. The choices made today by Sunak and by other European countries ahead of him this week and by the US over the weekend are literally undreamt of – not simply because the world economy was never structured to allow it (and there’ll be a lot of previously important influencers in the system who will now either fall into line or disappear into irrelevance) but because fundamentally literally no one could imagine this situation and moreover, no one can foresee the consequences of this in a month, a year or a decade.

The Sinking of Skywalker

This post contains ALL THE SPOILERS

DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM

So. I’ve seen it. I preface the below with the following disclaimer: it is just a film. It is entertainment and there are far more serious issues in the world, and in my country, right now.

However…it is also a presentation of how our culture sees itself. There’s reams of academic literature exploring how presentation of popular culture shows a mirror on the concerns and occupations of the people participating. And, in case the reaction to The Last Jedi hadn’t made you aware, Star Wars has become a battle ground between a certain class of those who think the world should serve them, reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and exclude those not like them and those who think, basically, the opposite.

I’m in the latter camp – I’m looking for representation. I’m looking for challenge, for change and for more than nostalgia for a type of society that has NEVER existed except in the myths told by the powerful to justify their actions.

Ok. If you’ve made it this far I’m ready to actually start. I’m going to list a few things I like about the film and then I’m going to really let go.

First. I like Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley. They are both fantastic in all three films. The commit to the material and both of them manage to deliver nuanced and emotional content. I could especially watch Driver all day long.

I also think John Boyega is great.

I think Chewie’s response to Leia’s death is the only really genuine emotional point in the film. Nothing else comes close.

And as ever, Hamill comes to the screen with an ironic but authentic presence. I feel like we truly missed a great actor of his generation. It helps that he appears to be a genuinely cracking human being as well.

The problems, for me, start with the opening crawl. The film simply announces the Emperor is back. No explanation. No sense of why or how anyone could have not foreseen this. No sense of being able to trace his signal back. Instead we have a preamble focussing on Kylo Ren rather than the heroes (and that’s a foreshadowing if ever there was one) who basically montages his way to secret hideout and then discovers all the secrets. I mean…really? And those secrets completely change everything he previously thought…well those convictions were easy to dismiss.

Then we have a completely pointless ‘spy’ narrative. It appears only to serve to establish there’s no time to save the galaxy from this unspecified threat (which by the way the spy can’t know about yet, since Ren himself also doesn’t know the details at this point). But hey, who needs continuity???

And here we see hyperspace travel, which has been clearly held up as taking hours, days or weeks across the entire canon now being completely discarded. (let’s not even talk about tie fighters which can hyperspace despite NEVER having been able to do this before).

By this point and I’ve already got questions…who saved Palpatine and took him half way across the galaxy to a safe space where snowflakes couldn’t get at him? Who fed him, watered him and doused him with anti-cancer drugs after they found him in a nuclear fusion reactor…?

How did his face not get BURNT OFF by the heat of an exploding nuclear reaction??? How did he create Snoke? We never find out. How did he become EVERY VOICE YOU’VE EVER HEARD?

I mean. Well I got nothing here. Because just then a thousand star destroyers rise up out of the mud…just like that. Who’s crewing them? Who’s feeding that crew? Who’s doing all of this???

It turns out Hux is the spy…the basic ruler of the first order. The chap who masterminded StarKiller base. Selling HIMSELF out. Why? Because like a five year old who’s had his candy taken away ‘I want the other kid to lose’. How this guy ever charmed his way to ruling a galaxy spanning super advanced nation of neo-nazis is anyone’s guess at this point. But it’s ok, because he has an ornate wooden walking stick in his quarters for the very day he gets shot in the leg…thank goodness. He obviously was a great Cub Scout.

So the resistance still has an unspecified number of ships (as does Ren, even after their disastrous losses in TLJ). So they just fly about wherever and whenever. The resistance generals leave the resistance behind instead of leading them and head off from one frolick to another without any clue what they’re doing excepting chasing down one macguffin after another. And it doesn’t matter when they get destroyed because it turns out there’s always another one. Oh, and I love that the Sith Wayfinder can be crushed by a human hand but can survive an inferno which melts a Tie Fighter…which was just so handily parked exactly where a random and ranging melee brawl happens to finish…

Ren gets his gang of Incels together and with a chimpanzee they spend an unnecessarily long time reforging his helmet. Indeed the chimpanzee probably has a more meaningful role than Rose, Finn’s love interest from TLJ and the moral heart of that film. But of course, certain white men hated her so she got sidelined and her emotional connection to the film severed. These Knights of Ren aren’t Sith, they aren’t jedi gone bad and don’t have anything to recommend them except old fashioned medieval melee weapons…which you can tell isn’t going to end well for them. And hey, it doesn’t, but who cares because by the end of the film they’ve done precisely NOTHING. Even Rey has to fight people with lasers…these guys have sharps…which are nasty except when pitted against LASERS! A pathetic waste.

So Rey’s been trained. Except she hasn’t passed some test we’re not really sure about because it’s not made clear. She’s almost all powerful and can teleport items across the entire galaxy. And she has powers other jedi considered rare (or were previously completely unseen). Now, I don’t object to this except they’re not consistent and only appear to get her out of being stuck. Like force memories (from Fallen Order). No prior use but all of a sudden she’s all about them.

And apparently her parents were important. Now this is where I really lose my shit. One of the things I loved about the Last Jedi was its message we are all capable of changing the world. That there is no divine right of kings, no special people who are special because of their blood, or their wealth or their parents. Instead we’re brought right back to, oh yes, the concept of there’s a specially powerful aristocracy and the rest of us should just shut up and listen and do what they say. And the entire argument between Sith and Jedi becomes an argument between two sides of the same group -those who are divinely chosen. It’s profoundly anti-democratic and deeply depressing that this is the message we’re choosing to privilege. It also suggest the nastiness of caste systems and is an argument that’s been used to justify slavery, racism, sexism and on and on across human history. You’d think we’d be able to jettison it – especially when TLJ did exactly that.

By the way…who’s flying the star destroyers? (I know, I’ve already asked but really, have you got an answer?)

Then there’s the fleet that arrives out of nowhere. It looks spectacular but…we’re told explicitly the hyperspace lanes are blocked…we’re also told no one came before. This is an important point. Except one ship disappears off and brings the entirety of the galaxy’s civilian population to fight the fascists (which is great btw!). How did they unblock the spacelanes? How did they convince people who, previously, had stayed the hell away? There’s no more hope now than earlier…so what changed their mind? Why weren’t the heroes doing this bit? Scouts could have been sent to…you know…SCOUT. The heroes and leaders could have been…oh, I don’t know…leading?

I feel sorry for Oscar Isaac. Poe is charming and dashing but clearly emotionally stunted because he learned this great lesson in TLJ and the immediately forgets it all over again and gets most of his mates killed doing exactly what he learned not to do the movie before.

By the way…when you need to insert into the script lines like ‘but that’s impossible’ not once but like three times? You’ve jumped the freaking shark, come back and given it a hotdog for being a good boy and then jumped it again and you’re so embarrassed by this you even confess it to the audience.

C3PO – I mean you sacrificed everything for this plot only to be brought back from the ‘dead’ just like that. Chewie…we thought you too were sacrificed to show Rey’s power and the conflict in her…only for you too to be still alive.

And Harrison Ford…I mean…were you a force ghost? An ordinary ghost? A memory? A hallucination? I mean…what? Was Ren actually mentally ill and the film simply crassly uses that to change Ren’s thinking?

Ren…you wanted to kill the old…and then you didn’t. For no reason except you discovered Rey was a Palpatine…which makes no sense. Much like the rest of the film, but hey. I like your character. I like your neo nazist portrayal, I like how it meant you could have been a proper bad guy. I hate how they made you back into a child doing someone else’s bidding. Oh, you have a plan? No you don’t because the PLOT says otherwise. What you have is a suddenly sexual crush on Rey who sees you like the boy next door and if only you become that boy next door you can be the good guy. After killing millions there’ll be no consequences for you and you’ll get the girl. Good old white boys will be boys after all.

And Poor Finn. You loved Rose. Or at least she loved you. But there’s no room for her anymore and even if you also love Poe, we can’t let that happen between two main characters can we??? Oh no, keep the gay stuff for two minor unnamed characters who get to kiss at the end. Argh! So Finn has no story. No arc. No meaning. Except hey, what’s this? Other POC who were stormtroopers too..probably slaves? yes, let’s not use that word but let’s heavily imply it. Then let’s only have relationships between people of the same colour – because white men complained about mixing of races on twitter. And let’s make this a slave rebellion on horses! Woo! Oh…wait. No. let’s not do that.

And, you know, after telling the audience for 8 films and an entire canon that it takes huge effort and a moon-sized base to create a planet destroying laser…let’s just tack one onto every spaceship the bad guys own…no need to supply chains, no need for ANY resources because we have the emperor in our back pocket and he can shoot lightening into space and only hit his enemies! In fact, who needs spaceships at all…apparently he doesn’t (he even says this) which dies beg the question…why have them at all you numbnutz?

And oh dear me…she did have important parents? And she’s not angry at them? And Palpatine didn’t have control over them? The emperor who says, at every fricking opportunity, this is just as I planned? Pretty poor planning/management skills there old Palps. You might need to watch a couple of TED talks mate, get a grip on family planning and strategic thinking.

It also entirely undermines Rey’s emotional journey – she’s no longer struggling with moral choices – she’s simply obeying her blood…more divine right moral absolution. It wasn’t me and even if it was, God said I could do it and who are you to question me?

I actually like the swapping of lightsabers. I liked the confrontation between Rey and Palpatine. I liked Chewie. I liked a whole bunch of moments in this mess. And it looked beautiful (although TFA and TLJ had more standout compositions) and the soundscape was great.

The film offers no reasons for many of the characters’ choices. No reason for Ren to change his mind, no reason for Lando to actually help, no reason for why Luke comes along and says ‘hey, all the stuff I learned in the last movie, when Yoda finished my training…it was all ponk. I was just wrong. Ignore me!’ No reason for Finn and Rose to not be together, no reason for why Poe was a spice smuggler or why he left, no reason offered for why Luke was looking for the Sith homeworld, no reason for why the rest of the galaxy decided now was the time to pitch up and help (when the enemy fleet is a hundred times bigger than the last time), no reason for Dominic Monaghan, no reason for why R2-D2 is almost entirely absent from the film.

BB8 is irrelevant and his hairdryer friend operates purely as a plot delivery mechanism.

I’d love to say this is lazy writing and some of it surely is. But I think it’s worse than that. I think it’s design by twitter and reddit. I think it’s design by reference to what the alt-right want in their films. Less non-whites, less mixed relationships, more white guys being the saviour, more white guys full stop. More mavericks, less cooperation and less community making the difference. I mean, it’s hard not to read into the people turning up to destroy the fleet as being anything other than a militia…so we have a defence of the 2nd amendment right there (another preoccupation of the alt-right checked off).

I apologise this is garbled. so a summary to finish.

  1. This film destroys all the good work of TLJ in taking Star Wars in new directions
  2. Even if you hate TLJ, it also completely ignores the universe set up over the last 40 years
  3. It has no character development worth a damn since there are no sacrifices by any major characters. Even Ren is redeemed and gets off without having to face the consequences of his actions.
  4. Who’s flying the frickin star destroyers???
  5. It makes the universe others have spent so long making feel real feel like a toybox with a kid simply saying ‘and then this happens and then this happens’. A crushing of the narrative rules.
  6. Characters are safe from harm because of plot armour. They’re also safe from thinking because of plot requirements.
  7. Worst of all, the above combines to make a chronically dull film which, although it’s clear it doesn’t like fascism, accommodates it in Kylo Ren and has no answers to the questions posed by evil. To be honest, it’s not even clear why Rey dies after her confrontation with Palpatine except it’s narratively expedient.

In the end it’s just a film. But my kids watch it and see the kind of world they think might be possible politically through stuff like this. To me its messages are retrograde and need to be rejected and to make it worse? It’s boring and meaningless with no consequences. It might be nostalgic crack for a certain demographic but the rest of us are left looking at it and shaking our heads as we move off to find content which actually interests and represents us

The problem with winning power

There’s a saying – ‘No one ever changed the world by being nice’. I don’t know how true it is, but I believe it about 60%. Certainly peaceful protest has succeeded in moving the chairs around but I’m not sure whether it’s only when peaceful protest and violent resistance meet that societies really change. You could say I’m really, truly hoping Greta Thunberg manages to inspire us Gen Xers and Millennials fulfil out duty to future generations and change the world before it gets overwhelmingly violent.

However, the above is really only by way of starting this short essay.

I’ve been pondering why it is so many of us here in the UK (and also our friends across the pond) find it hard to occupy the middle ground now.

One obvious argument from my side of the debate is that it’s fine to not discuss my future with nazis and fascists. It’s a pretty strong argument. And I also think, when faced with such extremism it’s valid to argue the call to moderation is one I should set on fire because it too is my enemy for giving space to those who won’t be satisfied until I’m no longer part of the world we currently share.

However. This doesn’t satisfy me. It might be right and it is definitely a simple argument to grasp.

yet it can’t be the whole story. Why not? Because I think we can only unravel the mess we appear to be in (or the period of enhanced and lively political engagement depending on your point of view) by understanding a little of what really constitutes it.

I know it’s trite and probably cliched to say this, but really we’re talking about power. But I don’t think what I’m about to say isn’t your normal discussion about power.

Those of you who are friends of mine on facebook will have seen me mention the work of Mary Douglas this past week. In particular books such as Natural Symbols and Purity and Danger. Much of what I want to think through here will be (inelegantly) crabbed from her thinking, so really, do yourself a favour and go read them instead of me!

Assuming you’re still here I want to think about power not in its exercise, but in what it means for communities. Power is, in most meaningful senses, about agency. It is about being able to act as one wishes. This is additionally so for communities. The big difference is that communities are made up of many people and so have sets of rules by which those people know they are a part and know they are outside. Rules of taboo, punishment, transgression etc. are all about saying who belongs and who is outside. To use the technical term, they are what defines the sectarian nature of any community.

Part of a community exercising its agency is to say ‘you are not a part of us’ or indeed to say ‘you belong here’. The interplay of the individuals own agency and that of their community is important and communities can crush those within (and without) through the means of enforcing their shared understanding of belonging. In a very real sense, to break the law (whether it’s to each coffee cremes when everyone agrees they’re an abomination or to engage in cannibalism) is to set oneself against the community.

So far so dry.

I want to briefly tie this into the superhero narrative we have and which modern western culture appears to find so appealing in the mainstream now. (and I’m a massive geek, so @ me here because I’m a big consumer/lover of this content) There’s a very common narrative that superheroes are really crypto-fascists. It’s a strong reading and one I basically support but it’s not deep enough. The problem with superheroes is that they’re basically representative in a large way of how we wish the world worked. Simplistically we wish we could, as individuals, go off and, with magical powers, fix all that’s wrong. Additionally, we tend to wish those problems could be personified and dealt with in a single struggle where it was clear what was right and what was wrong.

Apologies – I’m being overly simplistic. Yet I believe the above cod-psychology holds if we think about how communities address their concerns – and that’s through stories. We tell one another stories of how bad our enemies are, of how they’re lying, evil and happy to commit unforgivable sins. Not because we wish them ill as a primary motive but because it helps us defend our own values and helps mark them out as being separate to us, as being outside us.

For highly sectarian communities (and this is definitely a feature of the extremist politics we experience now) the barriers between being in and out are very sharp. For more moderate communities you see fuzziness, tolerance, a gradient which provides a lot of wiggle room. I think we’ll all recognise that right now, we experience both on our side and that of the other a very sharp divide. You’re either with us or against us. I’m being descriptive here rather than explicative so a little bit of the latter.

Sectarian communities are effectively defensive in nature. Their world view is one filled with insecurity and fear – fear of being corrupted, of the community failing. It can fail because of only one thing – that the outsider somehow corrupts us, that we weren’t pure enough. You’ll see this played out wherever you see ideological drives for purity – such as Momentum trying to oust the deputy leader of the Labour party or the withdrawing of the whip from 21 Tory MPs for daring to dissent. Game theory tells us those are disastrous moves BUT that’s not the rationality in play. The rationality in play behind these kinds of actions are ones designed to maintain purity, to identify and keep the corrupted outside of the community lest they corrupt us to. This drive to stave off the end of the community is built from three elements. One is agency – the community has values it wishes to actualise. The second is it feels threatened, it feels like if it loses it might disappear and this drives the third element – it believes in the story which makes it a community. These elements combine to create a set of motivations that are not those of trading power and achieving progress but of defence and survival.

People who are looking to survive will act as they deem necessary – if you believe losing the argument represents an existential threat, it becomes possible to justify any action as reasonable because to fail to take it could lead to having no life to regret sticking to ones values over. See this article in Time Magazine for a great example of a value driven community (US Evangelicalism) which has fallen into the sectarian trap of believing it’s under siege and acting defensively as a result.

This brings me to the main point of this post. Why votes and ‘opinions’ appear to have become the pivot points around which we’re building our mutual sectarianism. Led by the hard right, which is a community under deep existential threat in the West (at least), they’re acting as defensive communities – a vote like the referendum becomes not about facts but about the power it will give them to establish borders around their values. These values are shifting because they’re not that important – it’s the exercise of power in the name of survival which is important here. The actual values can be fleshed out later – do we mean full on fascism – well maybe, if that’s what served to protect ‘our way of life’. It’s also why a second referendum on Europe for the UK is irrelevant (even if legally vital) because those who won the first time around see that as the boundary which protects them. Anything to the contrary is simply another attack on them. You cannot overstate the insecurity this community feels across a whole range of social issues which crystallise around the idea of those who are outside and the pollution they bring when they are invited inside. As an aside – we can then see that many of these people aren’t ‘racist’ in the old fashioned NF/BNP/KKK sense. But they are racist because they see their identity centrally as white english speakers and the ‘other’ as outside of that. They’re just as prejudiced towards Polish people as they are Indians and Chinese.

When people get on the news and say ‘there’ll be riots if you betray 17.2 million people’ they’re not talking rationally as we understand it. They are, however, talking rationally from their point of view. THey’re expressing that their boundaries are being crossed and they will act to protect their definition of who is inside and who belongs outside. They will purify those inside who are ‘not true believers’ and they will guard the gates to stop anyone from coming inside. They’re not saying there will be riots (although there may be) – they’re saying ‘this is THIS important to me’.

I don’t know if this is particularly enlightening. I hope it is. I’m trying to say why the facts as people in my community find so important are so irrelevant to these types of community. I’m trying to say why they can’t see the legal frameworks, the four estates and our cherished checks and balances are vital to restricting magical untamed power from wrecking havoc. Why? Because, right now, they want power (their power) to wreck untamed damage on those outside their community who they perceive to be at their borders massing for invasion. To be clear I don’t mean actual invasion, I mean psychological invasion, an invasion where their myths are cast down, their narratives about how the world is and should be are shattered and replaced with new ones.

How can we talk to these people? Should we? We have to remember they have set a specific set of values as matters of purity and taboo. For many of us those items are too extreme or basic for us to often know how to tackle.

I would say this – these values bring them comfort. Othering those not like them (Remainers, poc, women with agency, foreigners, experts etc.) provide them comfort when they can actively exclude them. They already feel defensive and this act helps them feel as if their walls are impregnable. It gives them agency. Helping people exit from cults is very difficult and there’s a good JSTOR paper on how the exit process can cause more damage than healing.

If we are to tackle this, we must continue to propose our own myths, to dismantle their taboos. We don’t dismantle taboos with facts alone. It can’t be done. We can only dismantle taboos and ideas about purity by establishing our own forms of these values. This runs the risk of direct conflict as different mythic ideas clash. I think if we’re interested in establishing that racism is NOT ok then we have to accept that potential outcome.

So…to conclude. Like properly.

  • we should give up the notion that facts will convince people who are defending values
  • We MUST develop our own positive myths around why the society we want to live in is a good one and we must be prepared to defend it. i.e. we have to fight them a little on their own ground
  • We must remember that constitutional, legal and social niceties, conventions and norms are seen as contemptuous if they serve the ‘other’ for communities under siege
  • We must continue to defend the above for all the obvious reasons as well as the fact they protect us from ourselves
  • We cannot be neutral but we can also call people in these communities to their positive values – to their better natures. Almost no member of those communities sees themselves as bad people and we can use our own myths and narratives to call out those positives.
  • Attacking them, belittling them and humiliating people who feel defensive will only make them more defensive. However, when their ideas clash with mine, I must call them out but as one peer to another. We should always treat them, not necessarily with respect of their ideas but with the knowledge that their values are significant for them and we should therefore take them seriously. Seriously enough to oppose them.
  • Finally – narratives among the community of outrage are explicitly designed to build those values and to ensure emotional engagement remains high. As I’ve said elsewhere, we must develop our own myths and stories if we are going to counter these kinds of arguments. But how we build positive myths is for another day.

Democracy isn’t broken but the ships sailing on it are sinking

I’ll start this post by saying it’s not about Brexit. It’s not about the ERG’s contemptuous hankering after full throttled no holds barred capitalism to feather their already overflowing beds. It’s not about the Labour party’s utter lack of morals while in opposition – being populist and opportunistic while appearing to have no real sense of what it means to represent the people who vote for them.

Oh no. It’s about about what the hell the above means for us one year from now, five years from now and when my children are old enough to think about voting for themselves.

I contend that democracy remains one of the greatest inventions of humanity. Representative democracy across two chambers with an independent judiciary and free press puts it up there with the ECHR and the US Constitution. Human society is an amazing thing – a repository for our learning, for checks and balances which can bring benefits to everyone that no individual could ever accrue for themselves (despite what baffling morons like Ayn Rand believe).

Gav Smith recently posted how no one would ever vote for the conservatives again. He’s probably partially right. There’s a discussion there about how, even if that were the case, Labour would find it hard to win a majority. 

The question I want to ask is this: what are the current political parties for?

Labour’s history is amazing – its genesis and the ideas behind it were ground breaking and challenging to the whole of society. 

Conservatism, even if we can afford to be a bit more jaded about it also has a history well worth thinking through carefully and not dismissing out of hand. The world looked very different 50 and 100 years ago.

However, I would contend their peak impact, socially and culturally, is past. All major parties are on the decline – both in terms of membership but also because the things they care about more vociferously appear to be of decreasing relevance to people like you and me. 

Stated policies are often unachievable (despite being popular) and then abandoned. People demand honesty but then crucify those who make mistakes. Perhaps most difficult is that most people don’t belong to political parties, don’t attend meetings and don’t act on behalf of those parties even if they are members. 

However, this isn’t people’s fault. That would be to mistake parties having a god given right to exist. They don’t. Parties that don’t represent us should die. Actually, they should be taken out and shot before they start doing us harm because poorly populated parties become the province of the extremist and the incompetent – often because those two types of character find meaning and safety within the identity of political parties. 

We’ve seen, with the rise of populism (and all the incoherence associated with it), a genuine disgust over the ineffectiveness, hypocrisy and perceived corruption of the major parties. If populism tells us one thing worth knowing it’s that our major parties are dead and they just don’t know it yet. 

So back to the question – where do we go from here? With increasingly damanging and irrelevant major parties the challenge for the ordinary person is who to vote for. Do I vote for a party which doesn’t represent me (for instance, I have witnessed outright antisemitism in the labour party and more generalised classism, sexism and racism among conservatives), hold my nose and hope it is, on balance ok or is there another alternative?

I’d love to see the rise of an alternative, centrist, party. One that supported universal basic income, the rights of entrepreneurs, scientific and social innovation and the protection of our most needy. Who wouldn’t? However, of the recent attempts to see parties like this launched every one has disappeared without trace. 

We appear to be stuck with two major parties (and the SNP and LD as minorities) because the system they are a part of gives them some kind of vulcan death grip on airtime, funding and organisation. Yet I’d say there’s an equally important reason why nothing’s growing up in the middle – because we, as a society, have stopped congregating together, stopped having common enough experiences (in work especially) to provide the necessary fertile ground for a new party to emerge based on common understanding and policies. 

This leaves me bewildered. Not because I don’t understand the reasons for why we don’t appear to be able to replace our current sinking ships with something better suited to the modern society we live in but because I don’t see any way to replace them without some major upheavals in the way we live as British citizens. 

Let me put this another way. I’m a natural labour voter. In principle at least. But I can’t vote for Corbyn. I also can’t vote for a party which refuses to act as effective opposition. So who do I vote for? 

I don’t want to vote for the Conversatives for reasons I hope the utter farce they’ve made of Brexit makes obvious. Indeed, their average voter is literally not going to exist within two decades, leaving them quite literally dead in the water. 

I don’t want to vote for the Lib Dems or the Greens who are basically ideologically hollow and unforgivably naive respectively and can’t vote for the SNP (although I’m not especially happy about voting for any nationalist party). 

Let me lay out some of the issues I wish would form more substantial parts of policy:

  1. How we fund increasing social costs with an aging population while admitting this may well be a circle than can’t be squared
  2. How we look after our weakest most vulnerable people rather than assuming they’re scroungers and chancers
  3. Climate Change – God we need serious politicians on this and literally anyone other than Lord Lawson
  4. The labour market increasingly appears to be operating as a panopticon with no rights for average workers (and certainly no funding to take on abusive employers). We appear to be volunteering for this rather than challenging the rights of employers to police our morality
  5. Public space is disappearing faster than during the enclosures but we say nothing as those representing us close down our rights to congregate and travel freely with no accountability or right of challenge
  6. Law and order. Science says a lot of things about this but we’re stuck with firing world leading scientists who dare to speak the truth about drugs, incarceration and institutional racism
  7. Access to law – legal aid is a vital component of an independent judiciary. Too many people can’t access legal redress because they can’t afford to it. This MUST change. If we believe all people should be subject to the same laws we must invest in a system that allows it

There is no party focussing on this. They may have policies, I’m sure I’m going to get people mansplaining to me about the party they’re signed up to. Guys…I’m pretty smart. I’m also pretty widely read. I understand what’s being said and if you can point to where these are actually being implemented I’ll sign up. Seriously. 

The title of this post was about sinking ships. If it’s not obvious by now I think our parties are those ships and they’re doomed. yet there aren’t other ships to transfer onto. Which leaves me with a huge conundrum – democracy only works if the demos participates. Yet without a compelling set of representatives many people will opt out rather than feel compromised. They see their representatives not representing them and they feel robbed of power. This isn’t apathy – this is powerlessness. Because we’re less organised than before (even if more connected) we tend to lack the ability to challenge our representatives effectively when they stray from what we want them to reflect of our views. In a world where most of our representatives are disconnected from the challenges we face (mainly because so many of them are independently wealthy, privileged and highly educated) it’s an easy route to take to turning away from them completely. 

Can democracy reinvent itself with new, compelling, reasons to participate? I really, really hope so because right now I can’t see what comes after the current ships sink. 

My own prognoses for this would be as follows:

  1. double the number of MPs – the original number was set to be able to realistically engage with local communities. This was when the population was half the size. Ergo, more MPs actually means better representation
  2. Double their salary. Crikey – there’s just a few hundred of them. We spend more money on keeping the crinkle cut yellow buffoon safe when he comes visiting. It’s a drop in the ocean and, if we truly value democracy, we should be prepared to invest in the system that keeps it working in our favour. It would also mean that we can attract good people from backgrounds who can’t afford to give up other careers (including looking after their children) for what might be just five years in office. 
  3. Create a democratic second chamber with longer terms (say 10 or 15 years) which operates a little like the US Senate only without the gerrymandering. It has shown itself to be a very effective check and balance on the short-termism of the parliamentary executive.

I suspect the above would help only a little. The bigger issue is how we develop new parties who reflect what the majority believe and desire rather than listening to the extremes on both sides. I’m not suggesting referenda – please save me from the tyranny majority rule. I’m suggesting hoping, praying for a system where my representatives reflect my positions more than half the time rather than substantially less. 

If the above doesn’t happen a democratic deficit we’re only just now beginning to observe will grow like a disease, eating at the bones of our society until we’re left ripe for authoritarianism of one form or another and we’ll be defenceless to resist. 

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