Category: Ethics

How big is a mob anyway?

While I had more important things to post about today, I couldn’t let this post by Brad Torgersen go by without some comment. Having said that, this isn’t a Brad bashing piece. Rather, some of his comments got me thinking about some of the language we use (as well as touching on some questions about truth and evidence which is very much my briar patch).

Brad, somewhat late to the party, discusses Larry Correia’s disinvitation as Guest of Honour at Origins Game Fair. He summarises the problem as this:

“What’s concerning is that conventions — indeed, almost all institutions of various descriptions — are being placed in the position of either bending to the will of what are essentially mobs, or facing threats of both bad PR and, potentially, painful legal annoyance. In each case, the institutions almost always take the path of least resistance. It’s far easier to eject a guest who has attracted the mob’s attention, than stand your ground and endure the mob’s ire; as a “defender” of the alleged wrong-doer.”

‘Mob’ is doing a lot of work here. It is partly a way of making those who complain faceless & depersonalised and partly a way of making them seem irrational, angry & threatening. It is easy to characterise groups of people doing something as a ‘mob’ – for example, it would have been easy to call Sad Puppies ‘a mob’ or the Tor Boycott the action of a mob but the ease with which it can be done also demonstrates why it is largely an empty term.

But what about something like Gamergate? I can see why people use a term like ‘mob’ there but I am still worried that the term clouds issues more than it describes actions. The actual decisions made by people in Gamergate (or if you prefer some leftwing incident of many people acting on social media) were not those of an actual mass of people in physical proximity but rather many separate individuals making distinct decisions over long periods of time. I’m not trying to play dictionary definitions on the word ‘mob’ but rather trying to point out that ‘mob’ creates a misleading impression of the psychology and the community dynamics here.

In the case of the Origins Game Fair, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of a mob of any kind. Larry Correia himself is blaming one person as the source of complaint but I’ve seen evidence of other, quieter concerns raised to the con.

“Mob” as a term primarily obscures. It hides the way social media forms out of individual action both negatively and positively. An individual who is told they were part of a social media mob can look back at their actions and think “No, I just made that one comment and it was a reasonable one” and yet the subject of the comment may genuinely feel mobbed. At the Gamergate end of this spectrum, direct, individual acts of malice are made to look like individual responsibility played no part.

The (often genuine) feelings of being mobbed comes from the volume and the individuals making comments are often unaware of how they contribute to that volume.

An examples that crosses the Puppy/Puppyologist divide would be the recent brouhaha concerning the Romance author who is attempting to trademark the word ‘Cocky’ for her book series. I’ve written about it and Mad Genius have written about it and I don’t think there is much of a difference between our views on the issue. I’m sure the author concerned is feeling mobbed by the sheer scale of the response. It is unlikely she has read the Mad Genius posts on the topic and even more unlikely she has read my post but to some extent those posts all contribute. If our answer is ‘well she deserved it’ then I can see how that is a reasonable conclusion but that feeds into a different issue.

Brad raises other questions:

“None of this — in 2018 — happens without social media, of course. One might argue that Social Justice Zealotry could not exist without the anonymity and virility that social media provides. Pick your target from behind the safety of your keyboard, light the digital torch, rally your friends to the cause, and off you go to pillory whichever offending party suits your fancy this week. Proof? A preponderance of evidence? P’shaw!”

I’m not going to pick through the obvious hypocrisy of Brad’s complaint there — if we lived in a world in which Brad reflected on the faults he sees in others and whether they applied to themselves, then I’d have far fewer blog post topics.

Rather, it is worth asking about standards of evidence. Rather absurdly, Brad compares the con’s decision to the work of a military ‘seperation board’:

“Thank goodness separation boards don’t rely on the mob’s methods. Because when I am sitting down with my fellow officers to review a case, we’re all poignantly aware of the fact that we’re holding somebody’s career in our hands. We are not a court martial, so we can’t determine anyone’s guilt or innocence of a crime. But we can determine if the evidence of misconduct — not necessarily criminal in nature — does warrant severing the servicemember, and what the character of that severing should be. Because any discharge below honorable carries potentially life-long, negative consequences for the servicemember in question. And when something’s going to stick with somebody for the rest of their lives in a bad way, there better damned well be plenty of proof that it’s necessary, and justified.”

Again, self-reflection would probably help Brad see that, no, the standard of evidence that people should feel they need to have before commenting on social media about a con’s choice of guest should NOT be required to be of the same standards of evidence as a board convened to determine whether somebody should lose their full-time job. But that does not imply we should have no standards of evidence or truth.

Baseless accusations are not a good thing but we also can’t hold all truth claims to some sort of court-of-law standard either or even the standards of a HR function of a major institution*. To shift contexts slightly, there is a problem of regress here – imagine a company with some sort of grievance policy. The policy has to have at least two standards of evidence:

  • The standard used for the company to act on a complaint by one employee about another.
  • The standard used by the company to regard an employee’s complaint as reasonable.

The second standard has to be less than the first standard because employees need to be able to make complaints without undertaking the same due-process/evidence gathering/discussions that the complaint process uses. Indeed, there needs to be a third standard: the evidence needed for the company to regard a complaint as malicious or frivolous.

The same is true for reporting something to the police. It’s unreasonable to demand that somebody reporting something to the police should have ascertained the level of evidence needed for a trial. It’s unreasonable (indeed absurd) for the police to need that level of evidence to decide whether to investigate a possible crime. However, there has to be SOME standard because people make malicious complaints to harass others and there are obvious (and sometimes deadly) instances of the police acting on the basis of very poor quality information and/or prejudice.

There’s no easy answers at the end of this. To not just be truthful but to be concerned about the truth is a moral imperative. To consider the collective impact of our individual actions is also a moral imperative. That there are social consequence for bad (but not illegal) behaviour is part of how societies work. That there is no one-size-fits-all standard for evaluating the truth of a claim before commenting on the claim is a logical necessity.

*[Only afterwards did I see that calling the US Army a ‘major institution’ was a pun.]


The trope that changed my mind

Major spoilers for Get Out and lesser spoilers for Six Wakes follow below. This got long and warnings around topics that touch on (but don’t discuss in detail) body image.

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That John Ringo Thing

I don’t have much to say about writer John Ringo withdrawing from the ConCarolinas con. It isn’t just that most things have been better said elsewhere, it is also that most of the relevant issues have been discussed here in depth already but with different examples. You could probably do one of those fake bingo cards with the talking points that came up.

But while we are here:

  • People on the left or perceived as being left SAYING things? That is treated by the right as an attack.
  • People on the right saying things? That is a valuable expression of free speech.
  • The right are champions of liberty…but not the liberty of people to choose not to go to a con because they are concerned about the harassment.
  • The left objecting to somebody’s poor behaviour is bullying and harassment according to the right but bullying and harassment is simply being “not PC” if you are on the right.

It’s not consistent, its not sincere (no matter how passionately it is expressed) and it certainly isn’t anything to do with liberty.

Is he being punished for his “politics”? Yes but only in the sense that the right have made being obnoxious and unpleasant to other people a political issue and have re-badged people objecting to rude behaviour as an attack on liberty. Nobody was objecting to Ringo because of party allegiance, who he voted for, his views on taxation, his economic theories, his attitude to labour law or trade unions, his view on trade, capitalism, the merits of public healthcare, deficit reduction or electoral reform. As far as I can see nobody was objecting to him on the grounds of more contentious issues such as abortion or gun control.

As for his “safety” that is a very odd explanation for why the con asked him to withdraw. The con was facing other guests not attending and potentially other fans not attending. Are we to believe John Ringo’s safety was imperilled by people NOT turning up?

Reviews, aggregation and consent to be talked about

The fandom theme of the week for me seems to be on the topic of consent to be talked about. I’ll start with the absurd and work my way to the more subtle.

The absurd first of all.

Science fiction writer Richard Paolinelli kicked off my week with this tweet:

“Can @AusFedPolice tell me if @CamestrosF , a citizen of Australia, is violating Australian law, i.e. Chapter 33A-Unlawful Stalking, 359B(c)(ii) with his online attacks on myself, @jondelarroz and many other writers? He is attempting to ruin our ability to earn a living.”

This was so absurd and so counter to actual facts as to be laughable. However, the intent was clearly serious and I imagine Richard’s feelings are sincere, even if they are wholly at odds with his own behaviour.

Essentially Richard is not happy with me discussing him. Actually, I rarely do so and the most substantial discussion I’ve had about him was when he had attempted to engage me in a discussion (in the mistaken belief that I was either an agent of Mike Glyer or actually Mike Glyer).

It would be easy to dismiss Richard Paolinelli’s concerns because of his wider online behaviour but it is part of a spectrum of concerns around online discussion of others.

Mike Glyer has received more than his fair share of related complaints about him posting SFF news stories about people who don’t want to be covered by his site File770. Most notably many on the Sad Puppies side of the Puppy-Kerfuffle became increasingly hostile to Mike’s coverage. Again – easy to see their objections as absurd given their own behaviour, yet it isn’t only Sad Puppies. Reviewer and Shadow Clarke Jury member Jonathon McCalmont also had strong objections (again not well expressed) to being covered by File770.

In all of these examples, we have public comments being discussed publicly but the originators of the comments feeling as if there is either an intrusion into their life or a misuse of their comments.

Wayyyyyy over onto another side of this spectrum we have sealioning and harassment by trolls i.e. repeated, unwelcome and clearly intrusive attempts to engage a person in a discussion of what they said — typically done in bad faith or worse for the express purpose of trying to make somebody avoid saying anything for fear of being hassled.

I think there is a clear gulf between Mike’s news coverage and actual harassment. That doesn’t mean bloggers shouldn’t be mindful of when what they believe to be legitimate coverage of a person’s public comments have become distressing to that person but public discourse is an intrinsic good thing. It is simply not a viable ethical principle to only talk about the people who have given express consent to be talked about.

Skipping forward to the end of the week and there is a more interesting case that falls closer to being an ethical dilemma around related issues.

Rocket Stack Rank’s Eric Wong released a new feature at the review & review aggregation site entitled “Best SF/F by People of Color 2015-2016” which you can read about here and here.

Now personally I don’t like claims of “Best X…” whether it is in lists like this or in anthology titles. My dislike is moderated somewhat by the fact they can’t possibly be an objective assessment of what is best and hence readers know to take “best” with a hefty pinch of salt. Even so, I wish people wouldn’t do it and use a title that better reflect what the collection is (e.g. ‘our most liked…’, ‘our favourite…’). Having said that RSR did explain the actual process they had done to aggregate the list.

One reviewer, Charles Payseur (of Quick Sip Reviews) was unhappy about RSR list. His objections were manifold – a general objection to RSR’s approach, the nature of such a list being built mainly from reviews by white authors and finally, the use of his reviews to help compile the list.

Which is interesting on multiple levels. I think it is obvious that Payseur has:

  • Every right to be unhappy with his work being used to create the list.
  • Every right to ask not be used in this way.
  • Every right to ask not to be used at all by RSR.

However, that is not saying a lot. The question is what ethical obligation would RSR have to comply?

I think the answer is none but it is close.

Payseur has gone onto expound what he sees as the ethics of consent in these circumstances but reading through what he has written, I find it hard to find a coherent principle at work. That’s OK – I do a lot of thinking out loud directly to the world also. However, I don’t feel I understand Payseur’s objections well enough to paraphrase them correctly.

However, I can see two related ideas that could be in play (but I’m neither saying these are Payseur’s or not Payseur’s)

  • Exploitation of Payseur’s name and/or reputation to give credence legitimacy to RSR’s list.
  • Exploitation of Payseur’s work (as in what he has created and also his labour) to create the list.

These are both stronger points than simply not wanting to be talked about.

Of the two, I think the first is the stronger objection but looking at how RSR present things, I think they stayed on the right side of an imaginary ethical line – I don’t see anything that looks like they are implying the reviewers they aggregated endorsed the list or that they are using the reputation of reviewers like Payseur to promote the list. Having said that, it is safer to err on the side of caution and I think it is here that RSR is most right in conceding to Payseur’s request.

This first point also relates to some of the ethical issues around the Sad Puppy 4 recommendation lists (e.g. Alistair Reynolds asking not to be included) and the 2017 Dragon Awards (e.g. various authors asking for their finalist status to be withdrawn). The line here is around consent to be associated with a thing or being ‘forced’ to participate in a thing.

The second point really comes down to fair use. Reviews, criticism, critiques even public attacks necessarily derive from the work of others. I literally exploit stupid things Vox Day says to generate column inches – heck, I’m exploiting the work of both Payseur, Hullender and Wong in this very column! That is the nature of public discourse – there isn’t a way of having a discourse that isn’t built upon what others have said.

In RSR’s case, we have a somewhat different form of discourse: aggregation of data. Now it should hardly be a surprise given many of my posts that I’m very much in favour of seeing aggregating derived data as a legitimate fair use of other’s work for the purpose of public discourse. I’ll concede that is different in style from a review or a critique but it is also important because it provides insights into a field. It is by its nature transformative and is by no means ‘free’ and requires its own labour.

I don’t think it requires the consent of those who create public information if the aggregation is genuinely transformative (and respectful of privacy and other ethical considerations). Not only that requiring or expecting consent for such activity would be detrimental to public discourse. It’s not just RSR, its a wide range of other activities such as the Fireside Report, that looks at what is produced by wider fandom and identify trends or other underlying values.

Have a fully thought through all of that? Nope – happy to revise my opinion accordingly but it is a discussion worth having. There clearly is a spectrum of behaviour here and consent does play a role but so does the more general good of public discourse.

Your Blood Group is Determined by Biology and is a Social Construct

I doubt this is original but it is worth going through because strange right-leaning people keep shouting about biology at me. Oddly though, I was prompted to write not by an argument about nature v nurture but a different argument about invention v discovery in mathematics. I’m not an expert on blood groups (which is sort of the point) so apologies for any biological errors.  Note also this is a description of one specific relationship between a social construct and biology. Others may have things in common but that doesn’t mean they are the same or have the same relationship between a biological aspect and the associated things that a society may construct around it [i.e. neither the social constructs of gender nor ‘race’ is directly analogous to blood group]. Anyway, here we go.

You probably know your blood group. Once upon a time I regularly gave blood and felt a moral obligation to do so. I’m O negative, which is a handy default blood type for donation as it contains neither A, B or Rh factors and hence shouldn’t trigger an immune reaction in most people of other blood types.

But ABO and Rh are just two blood typing systems and even with those two systems, there are variations. Group A can be further subdivided into approx 20 subgroups of which A1 and A2 account for most type-A people. In terms of inheritance, there are also exceptions to the commonly understood rules – CisAB ( ). More generally there are tens of other blood typing systems that categorise other factors that can exist in human blood and which can potentially complicate blood transfusion.

The ABO/Rh system is a very effective simplification of a set of much messier, more organic categories. Yes, it is determined by your biology (you don’t get to pick) but the significance of whether you are “A” or “AB negative” etc depends very much on the existence and practicalities of a blood donation system. That system also has practical constraints but it is effectively something societies choose to do and requires political and social support as well as the existence of hospitals and an infrastructure to support them.

I also said that I used to give blood. I’m not allowed to currently because I lived in the UK during the height of the BSE/Mad cow disease outbreak. Concerns about the transmission of a prion disease via blood transfusion have meant that many countries place restrictions on blood donations. That rationale makes some sense given the extent to which prions are not well understood. What makes less sense is the restrictions imposed on men who have sex with other men (phrased that way to match the eligibility questions). Rules on blood donation to prevent the spread of HIV prevent people who have engaged in ‘at risk’ sexual behaviours (e.g. ). Such rules prevent many gay men in long-term monogamous relationships donating blood. The rules arise out of medical and practical considerations but such rules also have a social impact and arise because of social aspects (from international travel to personal and sexual relationships).

You should note another trick I employed above: I said ‘type-A people’. Once we have categories that can be applied to aspects of ourselves it is easy to see them as categories of people. I’m O negative, well no, no *I* am not, not really – my blood is O negative for the purpose of blood donation, it really isn’t much of a thing about who I am beyond that. The notion of me being O negative only really makes sense in the context of donating blood or receiving a blood transfusion (or a few other related circumstance). Prior to the development of safe blood transfusion and large scale blood donation, your blood group is not something people would know or care about. Even that history is entwined with complex social factors including the development of modern healthcare infrastructure but also the development of modern warfare.

Blood groups have also generated their own pseudosciences and racist theories – a kind of inevitable consequence of any system that allows a categorisation of people entails a dark desire to identify that categorization with other aspects including personality or as a means of identifying some inherent purity. Suffice to say there is little evidence of blood group actually determining anything other than the most likely blood needed in a blood transfusion (and as we’ve seen even that is a simplification – although a very effective one).

In most developed countries blood donation is voluntary but even such a primarily altruistic system has social implications. It isn’t had to imagine a situation in which blood donation was more heavily required or in which there were more significant socio-economic implications to donating blood. In such a situation the layers of social significance to blood type would be greater both in a direct sense and in the sense in which any social division generates its own myths and stereotypes. A world in which blood transfusions had to be more common and was connected to economic status, would with a capitalist-style economy lead to more weird (and unpredictable without knowing more details) stratifications by blood group.

So what’s my point if it isn’t a point about gender or race? The point is very much NOT that other social construct work the same way as blood group might in a fictional society. However, a broader point remains true. Critics of the term ‘social construct’ treat it as if a person is saying ‘wholly arbitrary’ or ‘completely made up’ or ‘fictional’. Treating the term like that makes it an easy strawman to knock down. No society exists in a vacuum*, so the things that our societies construct** are things that have practical limits and which are influenced by the environment that is constructed in INCLUDING the existence of other constructs. But the physical, ‘real’ influences on how a social construct has evolved over time do not mean that the categories, stereotypes or social expectations that arise apply in a deterministic way to individuals – some elements might (e.g. O- blood is safe for me to receive), others less so (e.g. whether there is a greater moral imperative for ‘O- people’ to donate blood) and others not at all (e.g. pseudoscience blood-group personality types).

tl;dr Societies and social attitudes are shaped by ‘real’ things including biology, but that does not imply that biology (or physics or chemistry) somehow validates them, makes them somehow extra true, or makes departure from them (either as an individual or as a direction for society) some kind of revolt against reality or science.

*[OK maybe there is a society of space squid, plying the void between the stars but that is a separate issue.]

**[You’d think that was obvious from the term ‘constructs’. Anything we physically construct has physical limits and depends on physical rules but can still be a work of creativity in which arbitrary, non-determined choices are made.]

Weird Internet ideas: Are modern nazis imaginary? (spoiler: no, they’re real)

We’ve been busy watching Rabid shenanigans with books covers, but meanwhile over in Sad Puppy domains, Chris Chupik has decided that modern Nazis are largely imaginary. Chupik, for those who don’t know, is notable mainly as a regular commenter on Puppy blogs but sometimes he guest-posts at According to Hoyt.

[This get’s long so more below the fold…also ‘Spencer‘ is usually an external link but each time to a different article rather than peppering this piece with quotes]

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Is It OK to Thump People?



I’ve watched several times a video of a guy thumping another guy recently. There is, naturally several sides to consider here:

  • Whether the violent act undermines free speech.
  • Whether, even if provoked by the objectionable views of the person punched, the act lowers discourse in general.
  • Whether violence is ever a justified reaction to a dialogue even with somebody obnoxious.

Having said that I think most people agree that the person doing the thumping was justified. Here is the video again (you’ve probably seen it already).

Yes, naturally I am talking about that time Buzz Aldrin hit lunar-landing denier Bart Sibrel in the face after Sibrel harassed and insulted Buzz and called him a coward and a liar. After multiple provocations, Buzz then, wack, thumps Sibrel in the face. What can one say? It is OK to both deplore violence AND accept that people have actual emotions and that when repeatedly provoked will react accordingly. Buzz doesn’t beat the guy up, he thumps him once.

The LA County District Attorney did not lay any charges on Buzz Aldrin and, according to Wikipedia, Sibrel (the man punched) later apologised to Aldrin.

So there you go. Yeah, maybe sometimes it is OK to thump people – you know if you are provoked enough it would be weird if people DIDN’T react that way. You know, like in the example above in which Buzz Aldrin is repeatedly harassed and called a liar by a guy whose ideas are based on stupidly elaborate conspiracy theories. Just don’t make a habit of it.



Oh, and apparently alt-right pro-genocide shit Richard Spencer was thumped the other day also. Whereas Sibrel was just a rude guy with an omnifallacious theory that in itself harms nobody, Spencer is a guy who promotes race hate and genocide. As far as I can tell the major ethical issue people have with this is that it wasn’t Buzz Aldrin who hit him.