Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

On How Being in the Majority Exacerbates Bias

It is 1:20AM, and I have insomnia induced by a sore throat and exacerbated by all the tea I drank in an effort to soothe my sore throat. So I am going to write about something that's been on my mind.

This is inspired by the current kerfluffle over the Hugo award's current short-list nominees, described in this post by John Scalzi, and in particular by haikujaguar 's commentary on the Hugos. But millions of more words have been written about this! Google will give you all of them if you like. And now I will add to the heap, because I have something to say that I haven't yet seen elsewhere.

Part of the stated reason why the slate nominations happened was that a significant number of conservatives and libertarians felt that a vocal segment of fandom was unfairly biased against their work because of their personal political ideology.

Some of the frequent responses to this contention have been "There is no liberal conspiracy in fandom" and "I don't see any discrimination against conservative writers in fandom". This is the part I want to talk about.

Political demographics are difficult to generalize; people often overlap in some areas but not others. I have friends who vote Democrat at the same time that they believe feminism is wrong because it represents reverse discrimination. Labels like "Democrat", "liberal", and "Social Justice Warrior[/Cleric/Wizard/Thief]"* have some overlap but they are by no means identical. For myself, I'm a libertarian who votes for Republicans more often than Democrats, and I believe strongly in social justice. Individuals defy easy categorization.

With this caveat in mind, my perception of SF&F fandom has always been that the majority of it -- say, 70-90% -- has a generally liberal bent. This was my perception when I was a proudly liberal teenager, it was my perception as a 30-something convicted libertarian, and it's my perception now as a muddled 40-something libertarianish whatever. My politics changed from ones which were mostly in line with the majority to ones which were frequently at odds with them.

By liberal, I mean things like the following:
  • pro-gay marriage
  • pro-choice
  • favors universal health care
  • tendency to dislike Republicans more the Democrats (many fen, like much of the US, are not enamored of either party)
  • favors regulation of big business
  • favors environmental protection
  • favors government assistance programs for the disadvantaged
  • opposes tax subsidies for big business
Etc. There's a lot of variation in the specifics, obviously. But when broad principles are in agreement, variation in details can be construed as 'friendly': the people who support Obamacare do not generally accuse the ones who want a single-payer system of malice or stupidity.

I don't know if my assertion that fandom tends liberal is a controversial proposition. If your experience is otherwise, I'd love to hear it!

Also, I want to note that I am talking about the politics held by the people in fandom, which is not the same as the politics espoused by sf&f books. Most authors do not write books to push a particular ideological slate, and if they do, those books mostly flop. Because even members of the choir find preaching kinda dull. One might find hints of an author's politics in their fiction, but if they write about politics in their blog at all, it's much less subtle there.

Anyway, for the sake of demonstrating my point, I am going to grossly oversimplify politics and assume that fandom is 80% liberal and 20% conservative.

Let us further stipulate that liberals are exactly as likely to hold negative stereotypes of conservatives as conservatives are to do so of liberals. That's been my personal experience, as someone who has more-or-less been on both sides. Also, conservatives and liberals both perceive "the other side" as being more intolerant of political diversity than their side. We are all human, we all notice slights made against us more than those directed at others, and humans are all inclined by nature to think at least a little worse of people who disagree with us on important topics.

Furthermore: let's assume that most conservatives and most liberals are of good will, and only a minority of either group believes those in the opposite group are stupid/ignorant/evil. We'll say that just 10% of either group will badmouth the other.

Last, let us stipulate that people who are among those of like mind will speak more freely. That is, in a group of mostly conservatives, the 10% who will badmouth liberals are more likely to speak up than if they were in a group of mostly liberals, and vice versa. Let's say that 50% of the time they'll make a derogatory comment if they're in the majority, and only 20% of the time if they're not.

To sum up my assumptions:
  • SF&F fandom is split 80/20 liberal/conservative
  • The typical liberal and the typical conservative are both tolerant of political differences
  • But a small fraction -- 10% of liberals and conservatives -- will make derogatory remarks about the other side
  • That 10% will make derogatory remarks 50% of the time when in a group of mostly their own side, and 20% of the time otherwise
Note: I picked specific percentages because I am going to make a mathematical point and if I use variables instead, this will take forever and be even less comprehensible. The exact numbers aren't important as long as I am right about the direction of the trend.

I actually saw an analysis very similar to this one within the last month or so, but on women in tech rather than on politics in sf&f. I have been searching in vain for if for the last few days, so I am replicating it (badly) instead.

Now, let's take a population of 100 sf&f fans at a con, and break them out into, let's say, 16 different groups of random size, in 15 chunks. The 16 represents different panels/social events/mingling in dealer room/etc. that are all going on at the same time, and the 15 chunks are different blocks of time during which another set of events will happen.

We have 72 liberals, and 18 conservatives. These individuals never say anything bad about conservatives or liberals. Then there's the 10% who may badmouth the other side, designated with an x: 8 liberals and 2 conservatives.

Sample spreadsheet showing how many derogatory comments about their politics the conservatives hear, and how many the liberals hear, over the course of a given convention.

Don't like my numbers? This has all the formulas used to calculate them. I'm not using this one as my example because the random numbers regenerate every time anything's edited on it, and it's laggy because there're so many interdependent formulas. But if you want to check my work, or if you want to copy it and crunch numbers based on different assumptions, be my guest.**

In my sample: at the end of the con, the average conservative has heard his ideology disparaged almost 4 times. The average liberal: 1 time. The conservatives are hearing four times as much politically-related abuse as the liberals.

I want to reiterate a few of the assumptions behind this analysis:
And despite this:


When conservatives say "I feel like the sf&f fandom is hostile to me", you can believe them even though you do not think that liberals are bad people. You don't have to believe that there is a liberal conspiracy. You don't have to believe that conservatives are being singled out for abuse. You don't have to believe that you, personally, are the one doing the bashing.

All you have to accept is:
  • Liberals are in the majority in fandom
  • Liberals, like conservatives, are human beings and some of them -- a small FRACTION of them! -- will speak ill of their ideological opponents.
Yes, I crunched a bunch of numbers based on gross oversimplifications and wild guess assumptions. But the trend shown will hold, whether more pronounced or less so, as long as those two things are true. That's all that it takes to have a disparate impact on a minority group.

Human beings, by their nature, are inclined to bond with those perceived as similar, and to dislike those perceived as different. There's a study showing that babies will root against a puppet because the puppet doesn't like the baby's preferred food. Seriously. BABIES. Over FOOD preference. That's how deep this rabbit hole goes.

But that doesn't mean this struggle is hopeless and we'll always be victims of our human tendency to discriminate. After all, very few adults will wish someone ill because they like bacon better than chocolate, or vice versa. My country, America, has been on a long slow path towards eliminating prejudice based on a number of grounds. And it's slow, and painful, and some days it feels like we haven't gotten anywhere. But we have; however bad discrimination against people of color may be today, it's nothing like it was a century ago. In my lifetime I have seen "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" be incorporated because it was an improvement over the way homosexuals had been treated in the US military, and seen it overturned 17 years later because it was still discriminatory and we could do better.

So if you don't like the idea of people being made to feel unwelcome because of their ideology, then here's my advice:

Listen to what the people who share your ideology say. Imagine how you'd feel if someone described your positions the way you hear theirs described. If you hear someone mocking other points of view, or insulting them, or treating them as stupid/evil/ignorant: speak up. Say that you think it's unfair, or unkind, or whatever is appropriate to the situation. Maybe you won't be able to make the original speaker re-think their words, but you will let anyone listening who felt marginalized by the statement know that they aren't alone.

This is especially important when "your side" is the majority voice, but even if you're a minority within a given context, showing some empathy for the other side seldom go amiss.

For the curious: I mostly finished this at 5AM, and decided to try to sleeping before posting so I could proofread it. I managed to sleep for perhaps 40 minutes. Insomnia, I have SO MUCH BIAS against you right now. GRRRR.

Anyway, apologies for being long-winded and incoherent. I blame sleep dep, sore throat, fever, and nausea. Corporeal form, you are letting me down today.

* I know SJW started life as a slur, but as a Social Justice Cleric, I rather like the label. Plenty of self-identified liberals and Democrats are not deeply concerned with social justice, and it's handy to have a way to differentiate. Also, it sounds great. Adventuring Party on an epic quest for Social Justice! Anyway, I consider myself to be One of These, so if you are offended by it, please understand I do not mean it in a disrespectful way.

** Please bear in mind that I made this spreadsheet at 3:30 in the morning while sick and unable to sleep. If anyone does dig into it and discovers I munged some formulas, please let me know! I will be grateful. Any mistakes are due to sickness and/or sleep deprivation and not because I was intentionally fudging to make my point.

EDIT: ckd found the link to the Ian Gent's blog post about sexism in tech, which is what inspired my post, and which has the original model illustrating "the Petrie Multiplier". Thank you, CKD!
Tags: politics
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