Not The Fox News: The Bully Pulpit is not the Moral High Ground

I was bullied a lot at School. Never physically; I was 6’0 and 200 pounds by the time I was 13, but always psychologically and emotionally. That’s the thing no one tells big kids who don’t learn to throw their weight around straight away; the very thing that you could be using to control the situation is going to rob you of any control until you do. I was the perfect storm; physically large, over articulate, teacher’s kid, glasses. Add in the fact that when I hit Secondary School I was sharing a classroom with my friends, my enemies and a parent and you start to see the size of the target on my back.

There were never any fights to speak of. That would have been honest, and the people doing this to me would have had to stand up for themselves. Instead, there was constant mocking and trickery,  breaking down my spirit as some of my contemporaries decided the best way to stop the big kid being a problem was to be a problem for the big kid. That brings us to Chris and Martin.

I wasn’t bullied by the bifurcated halves of the Coldplay frontman. That would have been entertainingly horrible and easier to deal with. Chris was clever, handsome, physically fit and knew it. He was also one of only two Mormon kids in the school and so clearly decided the best defense was a good offense. Can’t fault the strategy. Martin was smaller, highly intelligent, clearly very bored and decided at a very early age he didn’t like me. I have no idea why, I suspect I did something dumb and offensive. I was a kid. That and multiplication were basically my job.

They ragged on me, endlessly. My height, my weight, my glasses, the fact I liked Doctor Who and Transformers, the fact I never got in trouble with teachers, the fact puberty landed with me six months before everyone else. It never stopped, ever. Later, in Secondary School, Chris got psychologically creative and Martin got equal parts obtuse and utterly, utterly vicious.

It never stopped.

Just once, I tried to make it stop.

Back in Primary School, they were running me ragged. The latest game was to get me angry enough to chase them and try and stay out of the way. I was, and still am, pretty fast over 100m but I was never quite fast enough and they’d outpace me every single time. Eventually, I told my parents what was going on and they called the Headmaster.

The next morning, I was called into his office, as were Chris and Martin. He asked me to explain what had been going on and I did. I told him they bullied me all the time, the things they said to me, the ways they made me feel. He asked Chris and Martin what they had to say for themselves.

They said they saw I was overweight, and they thought if they could get me to run a lot I might lose some weight and get healthier. They said they were just trying to help.

He bought it.

They didn’t get in trouble for a single thing. He let them go, gave me worthless advice on how to ignore them and sent me on my way. I’m amazed, to this day, he didn’t tuck a candy bar in my shirt pocket as I went.

They gamed the system in their favour. Maybe to make a point, maybe to stop being yelled at, maybe to show me just how alone I was. Probably all three. I don’t much know or care, especially as one of the advantages of growing up is the sociopaths you have to stand next to at school no longer know who you are, where you live or how to hurt you.

I mention it here because that taught me, back when colouring in was still on my list of homework, that every system can, and will, be turned against you. It won’t be personal when it is and that won’t matter when it happens. The only thing that will matter is that you leave as a victim, and the bullies leave convinced that they’re the good guys.

They’re never the good guys.

If you have to game the system to win, you haven’t won. You’ve stopped someone else from winning. You’ve trodden on someone’s neck to get two inches higher or, more likely, just to see if you could.

And that brings us to the Hugos.

The nominations were announced a couple of weeks back and there’s a Hell of a lot to celebrate on there. Paul Cornell’s The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who is nominated for Best Graphic Work and deserves to win for its unflinching and affectionate portrait of the impact the show has had on British culture. Kameron Hurley’s fiercely articulate, precision non-fiction is a pleasure to see being nominated for two awards and Lee Harris, one of my dearest friends, has become the first ever British editor to be nominated for Best Editor, Longform. There’s recognition for the Verity Podcast and the magnificent Pornokitsch, authors like Aliette De Bodard and Ann Leckie and huge validation for the worth of podcasts and blogs as vehicles for cultural commentary. Crucially, that, and the presence of a lot of first-timers on the list speaks to a willingness to engage with the current state of genre fiction that’s been lacking in the past. It may not be what a lot of people wanted, but its definite progress.

Then there’s the trolls.

Larry Correia and Theodore Beale are right-wing genre fiction authors. That doesn’t make them bad people, that honor goes to a delightful cocktail of almost comically extreme racism and sexism on Beale’s part and their actions. Namely, Correia’s recommended ballot, his plea for fans to buy memberships and vote for him so they can ‘stick it to the man’ and Beale hopping aboard yet another angry right wing white dude bandwagon. A lot of people are claiming ballot stuffing. I don’t have access to the math and I’m too good a journalist to claim that without seeing the evidence.

But it’s very difficult not to view this as Beale and Correia, and anyone who was influenced by them to ‘send a message’ gaming the system, just like Chris and Martin did with me. And, just like Chris and Martin they’ve got away with it, for two reasons. The first is where they have a lot in common with my old hunters; hiding behind rules lawyering to conceal the very moral and ethical cowardice they claim to be taking a stand against. The second is more insidious; because they can. Awards like this are eminently gameable and authors with audiences, ambition and every political affiliation under the sun have done similar things for years. It’s not something that can be worked against or around without getting into the sort of Hugo bureaucracy discussion that’s high above my imaginary pay grade.

But that flaw in the structure of populist awards is what gives Beale and Correia both precedent and something to hide behind. From the outside they’re explicitly gaming the system to make left wing science fiction fans cry and Correia claims, strike a blow for the sort of unabashedly pulpy fiction he writes.

I love pulp. Larry Correia and Theordore Beale don’t speak for me. They don’t speak for anyone other than themselves, loudly and frequently yet somehow always complaining that their voices aren’t heard.

Like I said; every system can and will eventually be turned against you. The Hugos just have been. There’s no catharsis to be had here, no ability to confront these people and have it out with them, despite the best (and worst) efforts of the internet. They’ve gamed the system. They’re at the party. There’s nothing to be done.

Well, except for take over.

Like I talked about at the end of last year, there is a new wave of authors, publisher, podcasts and blogs sweeping across this industry in a polite, cake and tea-driven wave of talent, enthusiasm and willingness to help others. Five years ago, I stood in my first convention, the place that I was supposed to feel at home, and felt nothing but ignored by a room predominantly filled by over articulate white dudes. In 2014 I have friends on three continents, bosses on two and am looking at a Hugo shortlist crammed full of first timers of multiple genders, nationalities, formats and outlooks.

It could, and should be better. It will be. The bad news is not fast enough for anyone’s liking and, like I say, with no catharsis. The good news is the cultural and psychological shift within the industry is going to be both absolute and absolutely positive. Evolution and endurance are never easy processes but they’re always necessary ones. The authors who understand that are the ones who’ll still be standing in forty years. The authors that don’t will fade into nothing, followed by the scars they’ve tried to leave to mark their passing.

I survived being bullied by outlasting my bullies. Genre fiction will do the same.


If you want to read more about this, there’s an abundance of discussion online. Kameron Hurley nails it and Far Beyond Reality is one of many sites with a good roundup of posts so far.


Next month, the long promised Maximus Decimus Meridius School of Blogging. See you then.

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