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The Psychology of Hugo Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies

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Photo by Tiger Girl 1x1.trans - The Psychology of Hugo Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies

The State of the Puppies Up to Now

For those of you not familiar with the current controversy about the Hugo Award in Science Fiction, go here, here, and here to read up on what is happening. I do have skin in the game. I am a Worldcon supporting member, and I have long standing friendships and correspondences with several authors and editors and artists in science fiction. I am also a feminist, an anti-racist ally, an LGBTQ ally, and overall what the Hugo Sad Puppies would call a “SJW” (social justice warrior, meant as a pejorative when they say it).

I am not going to try to diagnose anyone involved in this issue, I am only going to discuss some broad psychological principles that apply. I am trained in social work, and hold a license to practice in the state of Missouri. My “day job” is as a psychotherapist in my own practice, and I have specialized over the last ten years on issues of poverty, trauma, and personality disorders, with a lot of depression and anxiety thrown in. I have had a fascination with, and have done a lot of work with, people who abuse.

The basic premise of Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia, leaders of the Sad Puppies, is this: that the SMOF (secret masters of fandom) have conspired for years to prevent authors with conservative viewpoints from winning Hugo awards. Their particular flashpoints for this point of view are John Scalzi, N.K. Jemison, and more recently K. Tempest Bradford, who recently asked her blog readers to support a challenge of reading only writers who were not cis-gendered (assigned the same gender as they feel) white men for one year. If it reads like bad fiction, I’m not the one who made up this particular fiction.

The Horrible, Awful SJWs and their Affirmative Action vs. Sad Puppies and their Implicit Belief in their Supremacy:

One key piece to the psychology of their movement is their use of the term SJW as a pejorative. From the Sad Puppy point of view, people who see diversity and inclusion as a positive good are a threat to them, in part because they simply don’t believe that diversity includes diversities among political lines and religious lines, and in part because they hold several implicit and subconscious beliefs about the nature of social dominance. This despite the fact that if asked directly, Sad Puppies (but not Rabid Puppies, who are openly homophobic, racist and misogynist) will deny any biases – and more importantly, will believe themselves to be free from bias. Brad Torgersen brings up his African American wife, and Larry Correia brings up his Hispanic heritage frequently to use as defenses against accusations of racism, with no awareness of how false that rings in the minority and ally communities.

One key piece of the distrust of diversity is the belief that if a work by a woman or a person of color or a person with a non-straight sexual orientation appears on an award ballot, it is most likely that the work is on the ballot because of either formal or informal affirmative action, and not due to its merits. Interestingly, when people who hold this belief are questioned about specific works, they usually concede that the work was, indeed, very good, and deserved to be on the ballot. It’s an interesting psychological carve out, equivalent to the idea that “my black friend” is a good person, but “all those other black people” are lazy, criminal, etc.Admitting that one work of a person who is not (straight) (white) (male) is good does not open up a Sad Puppy into believing that the work of others in that category could be equally as good.

Samuel (Chip) Delany, the first black man to win a Nebula Award, had this to say about the phenomenon years after his win. 

Since I began to publish in 1962, I have often been asked, by people of all colors, what my experience of racial prejudice in the science fiction field has been. Has it been nonexistent? By no means: It was definitely there. A child of the political protests of the ’50s and ’60s, I’ve frequently said to people who asked that question: As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, however, I presume in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force—until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field.

That is what is happening now. Octavia Butler is gone but not forgotten. Chip is still a major voice in the field. Now we have Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemison and Steven Barnes and Nnedi Okorafor and Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie and Ted Chiang and Ken Liu and Mary Anne Mohanraj and the list goes on and on…

Every one of those writers blows me away. They are all so incredibly talented, and so obviously good at what they do, that I have to pull my therapist hat on tightly against the headwind in order to understand where the Sad Puppies are coming from. Those awesome writers of color intimidate me, and I’m both an ally and a fan of many of them, and acquaintances and even friends with a few.

They are a threat to the established order. We have reached that point Chip predicted where there are enough writers of color winning awards, and doing so regularly, that they are a threat to the perceived superiority and economic security of (white) (male) (straight) writers. You can look at any given group of nominees, even the Sad Puppy slate, and find among them writers of color. However, the difference between the POC on the Sad Puppy slate and other POC who have been nominated is that the others know that they got their nominations on merit. The Sad Puppy slate members, specifically chosen to fill a political agenda, have no such knowledge.

The Sad Puppies are probably going to object to my characterization at this point. First, how do I know that nominations of NK Jemison and Ken Liu and Ted Chiang weren’t “affirmative action?”. Because the writing was damned good, that’s why. Second, (they object) how does it “taint” this year’s nominees to be on the Sad Puppy slate? Because the slate was specifically created to make a political point, not a point about the quality of literature. You don’t have to take my word for it. Many of the folks nominated on the slate chose not to accept, some when the slate was first announced, and some after the nominees were announced and it was clear that the Sad/Rabid Puppy slate had prevailed. Even pointing this out as a problematic perception does absolutely no good to those who need most to understand it. In fact, being made aware of the psychology of things like this has been shown over and over again to harden resistance to change.

The Sad Puppies and their veiled supremacist views were utterly and completely predictable. So were the Rabid Puppies and their open and contemptuous supremacist views. More important, the collusion between the two was predictable. Hugo Sad Puppies exports bad behavior and open hostility to Rabid Puppies, which allows Sad Puppies to claim to have relatively clean hands while clearly benefiting from the bad actions of the Rabid Puppy crowd. The psychological benefit of this for Brad and Larry is clear: they can believe that they did not discriminate, and that they did not have even a hint of racial or gender or gender expression or sexual orientation based motive, while openly playing up their political motives. After all, they’re just putting things (people) back the way they belong.

The Politics of Science Fiction, Entitlement, and the Secret Masters of Fandom

There have always been both conservative and progressive writers in science fiction, as well as writers of more exotic political persuasions. This makes sense, because science fiction and its cousin, fantasy, are speculative fiction, and predicting the future and imagining alternative worlds is a core of speculative fiction. There have always been good writers throughout the political spectrum. From the beginning of the genre, Robert Heinlein managed to fill the entire spectrum by himself, Asimov was progressive, Campbell conservative. There was a wave of progressivism in the sixties ushered in by Ursula K LeGuin and Samuel Delany, and the back and forth has always been there.

Over the years, the Hugo awards and nominations have gone to good writers who come from pretty much every point on the political compass. To some extent, because the voting base is small and SF is a very small world overall, like all fan awards, the Hugos are in part a popularity contest. The Sad Puppies saw this natural tendency, magnified it, and made it the basis of a grievance: Not enough deserving conservative authors have gotten Hugos in the last several years.

The word “deserving” is key to another psychological piece of the Sad Puppy premise – and this is that when someone has won something they want, they were robbed and cheated of something that rightfully belonged to them. This is the psychological principle of entitlement. It is one of the key psychological distortions that cause problems in peoples’ lives, and is linked pretty strongly to subconscious beliefs of superiority.

A person feels “entitled” to something if they believe it belongs to them by birthright or through innate superiority or privilege. Examples of entitlement include the belief, that Vox Day holds openly, that a woman must be available sexually to her partner at all times no matter what his behavior or the dynamic of the relationship or other considerations, that people who have accumulated wealth, whether through their own efforts, exploitation of others, or inheritance, do not owe anything to anyone else, etc.

Larry Correia’s public attitude makes it pretty clear that he felt that he deserved to win and that the Hugo he was nominated for was stolen from him, rather than simply won by another contender. (Larry denies this verbally, but one of the first rules of psychology is that when there is a conflict between words and actions, believe the actions.) The subjective nature of literary awards makes this a not uncommon problem. In any award where winning is at least partially a matter of opinion instead of mathematics, the language of robbery holds sway. “He was robbed” “She stole that award” “How on earth did he take that away from her.” From ice dancing to dressage to debate to writing, any ranked creative competition is going to generate these sorts of claims.

Correia took this further, speculating on the basis of negative comments he had received from either fans or writers (he has never specified) that he was specifically denied his award because of his political views. He has said that he believes has been specifically denied because he owns a gun store, is Mormon, is conservative, or all or some combination of the above.

It is common for people who feel entitled to look for unjust reasons for exclusion from something they feel they are owed. Afraid to look within, they will search for any confirmations they can find that someone, somewhere has unjust views of them, and then work long and hard to build a case that these views somehow formed the basis of discrimination. The logical leaps and sifting for scant evidence that make up this process are the roots of paranoid beliefs and are pretty common among lots of people, not just people who have diagnoses.

In Correia’s specific case, as far as I can tell, most of fandom didn’t much know or care about his politics or religion prior to his creation of the Sad Puppy slate and ongoing hostile engagements with people he considers to be SJW. Some people liked his books, some didn’t. I didn’t particularly, but then military SF is not my favorite, and I’m unlikely to be strongly attracted to it unless it does something completely new and different with the genre. I also had no negative opinions of Correia prior to Puppygate.

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Photo by Javier Prazak 1x1.trans - The Psychology of Hugo Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies

He says people said awful things to him and that many people in SF fandom are negative about conservatism and about Mormons. I have no doubt that any of this is true. However, the reason I have no doubt this is true is because 1) nearly everyone in the world has had people say awful things to them and 2) every political and religious opinion in the world has people opposed to it. What I do doubt is that his political or religious views had anything to do with not winning the Hugo. After all, despite what he claims is rank bias, he got nominated for a Hugo without gaming the system (the first time, anyhow) even though he has what is quite possibly a minority view of religion and politics in the field. That requires writing talent.

I suspect he didn’t win the Hugo that year because 1) someone else had better buzz 2) someone else had a better story, or 3) someone else was viewed by the voters as being “the right person at the right time”. These are all things that happen. It was probably some combination of the three. He did not not win because “That asshole Larry Correia is a Mormon who likes guns”.

He was nominated last year as well. Things were different then, as last year was the first effective Hugo Sad Puppy campaign, and his self serving slate put him on the ballot. At that point, I’m sure there was some “I’m not voting for that asshole Larry Correia because he gamed the system and is ruining the Hugos.” Note: He is still not not winning for owning a gun shop or being conservative or belonging to a conservative church.

Which leads me to my final point:

Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies – They All Have Fleas

Let me be perfectly clear: Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen (who really seems to more or less have tagged along on Larry’s coattails) are not in the same league as Theodore Beale. Larry and Brad are frightened, well fed little puppies sitting on top of a large pile of meaty bones and snarling because there are one or two they can’t have, and feeling justified in their fear because some skinny kittens have managed to slip away with a few of the bones and gnaw on them in peace.

Theodore Beale, on the other hand, is Cerberus sitting on top of the bone pile breathing fire and wreaking mayhem for the joy and the attention of upsetting everyone, puppies and kitties alike. I’ve been searching for ten years now and have not found a single redeeming characteristic in Beale. He’s a vile person with vile opinions, and he’s an absolutely atrocious writer. If it weren’t for the fact that he was raised with money and privilege, he would almost certainly be serving twenty to life somewhere, because he either acted on or got caught acting on his beliefs. He is someone outside the scope of psychotherapy. If you were to ask him, he would tell you there is nothing wrong with him, he’s just fine the way he is – and that is why he is outside the scope of therapy.

He doesn’t need to be saved, society needs to be protected from him – and then maybe someone (not me) can work on saving him. And I speak as someone who works with violent people, entitled people, people who abuse, on a regular basis. If he were free to act on his impulses with impunity, people would suffer. I can only be grateful he’s not particularly impulsive.

Right now, it serves Theodore Beale very well to borrow the Sad Puppy meme and create his own offshoot, the Rabid Puppies. He is getting attention and hate, and he thrives on that. It’s what he lives for. For now, while they serve his purposes, he is keeping the Sad Puppies protected from his fire – until they no longer serve his purposes.

And I suspect Correia and Torgersen know it. They are very careful to walk the line between distancing themselves from him and not distancing themselves too much. They have only recently acknowledged that it wasn’t the Sad Puppy slate that swept the Hugo nominations this year, it was the Rabid Puppy slate. They haven’t admitted (at least publicly) that it was Beale’s invitation of Gamergaters – people who are perfectly willing to commit illegal acts including doxxing and making rape and murder threats (and in at least one case, an attempt) – to exclude specifically women, and specifically minority women, from their own particular fandom (video games).

And yet (Correia and Torgersen claim) it is not about sexism. It is not about racism. It is about fighting against ideological purity. To borrow a meme, it is about ethics in gamer journalism.

Here’s the final, worst piece of all of this. By now, the Sad Puppies have realized what they have unleashed. They realize (at least privately) that they overreacted, that they were the bad actors against an opponent that only existed in their heads – but they can never publicly admit it, not without having the hell hound they unleashed turn on them. If they distance themselves from Beale too much, they risk being slapped by the same forces that they opened the door to theHugosfor. They might be subject to doxxing and threats and actions. They will have Beale’s venom spewed over them.

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And they don’t have a moral high ground. I think that they’re even beginning to realize it. Their recent blog posts have made some subtle and telling confessions. Both of them know they will “never” win a Hugo. That is almost certainly true, barring a full and abject apology and extensive restitution for the damage they have done to SF’s fandom. They’re crowing about how they’ll never accept one, and they won’t, but not because they don’t want one. They won’t accept one because as things stand, it wouldn’t mean anything. There would always be an asterisk next to the Hugo for Brad Torgersen or Larry Corriea for any Hugo won because of the Sad Puppy slate, and both of them want the real thing (for which I respect them both).

People they nominated are turning down the nominations left and right, and are making it perfectly clear that it’s not about ideological purity or pressure from SJW’s but because they either don’t want their Hugo to have an asterisk next to it, or because they don’t want to be caught in the crossfire.

The Sad Puppies have permanently damaged their reputations with this stunt, and second to writing skills, reputations are the most important tools at a writer’s disposal. They ruined their reputations by acting unprofessionally. No matter what their grievances, even if they were reasonable, the behavior of the Sad Puppies has been that of petulant, spoiled children. Throwing temper tantrums and tearing up the room is never professional behavior. Professional people go through channels first. They look for in-group remedies and compromises and legal remedies, and only if there is severe, documentable discrimination and no attempt by the powers that be to remedy would they then move to protest.

I truly believe that the Sad Puppies believed they were doing what they were doing to bring attention to what they saw as a just cause. Social justice is a passion of mine, and I understand the impulse to right a perceived wrong. I even understand the impulse, once the momentum got away from them and they realized that they were holding the wrong end of the stick, to double down and stubborn up. That’s simply human nature. But it isn’t the adult thing to do. At some point in most peoples’ lives, they face that moment when they have to say, both to themselves and to people who trusted them, “I’m so sorry. I really messed up and I don’t know what to do to fix it. What can I do to fix it?” Correia and Torgersen are facing that moment now.

At this point, the best thing Brad and Larry can do to save their reputations is to apologize, show up at WorldCon and go to the business meeting and participate in cleaning up the mess they made. That may not be enough. But it might be enough that Larry Correia might be surprised coming around a corner hearing some radical SJW saying “Yeah, Correia isn’t so bad. After the Sad Puppies mess, he helped pass the [important new rules] for the next Hugo. I hear he has a book out. I might check it out. I kinda like military SF.”

As for the Rabid Puppies? Some of them are just wrongheaded kids that don’t understand that the people on the other side of the electronic passageways they walk through are people. They’ll grow up and get out. Some of them live deep in a fantasy world where they are brave warriors standing up against the horde of undeserving others who are trying to storm the castle, without any self awareness that they are, in fact, foolish saps who have been duped into guarding treasure stolen from those hoards by the Rabid Puppies’ leaders. Some of them are just as vile as Beale. There is a lot of overlap between Rabid Puppies, Gamergate, and Pick Up Artist (PUA) culture. It is a world filled with envy, lust, and hate, and a very unpleasant place to live. Some will escape, some will go deeper into the dark passages under the castle, and some will act on the hate and lust and violence and spend a very long time in a cage.

The Hugos will survive. The worm is turning and social justice is prevailing, and that includes ensuring that the best stories win, regardless of the author’s politics. The Hugos will never be perfect, because Hugo voters are people, and people aren’t perfect. But they’ll be okay.

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