Hoisted from Comments: Quiet Authority (or, Lookit! I Pooped!)

A few months ago, I posted about the Transcriptase and suggested that the issue boiled down to improving professional norms in SF:

In the SF writing profession, the norms are different yet again. Unlike being a cubicle worker, unlike being a steamfitter, in SF it seems the penalty for being an unsocialized loon is pretty close to zero.

Recently in comments, Carl suggests that perhaps we’re forgetting about the “anarchic elan part of the geek appeal and street cred? Don’t need no stinkin’ badges and all that?” I responded,

SF fans do embrace the weird and the anarchic. That doesn’t mean we should run to embrace people who poop in the middle of the street and point proudly, “Lookit! I pooped!”

To which Carl said,

… The problem, if it is one, is that an anarchic ethic gives very little traction for authoritative sanctioning of poopers. I admire the thoughtful reaching for consensus community standards at Transcriptase, but note also that doing so on the basis of individual statements of conscience or appeals to universal standards that obviously aren’t universal or there’d be no issue is also a bit diffuse. Point being that communities constituted on such bases are uniquely vulnerable to poops – a cost of doing business in this fine way perhaps.

Which at first I thought I could respond to with a quick, “well of course they’re vulnerable to poops, they don’t have the kind of centralized authority you get from being a steamfitters foreman or an HR manager.” But after re-reading Carl’s comment, I think he was pointing out something more subtle, something worthy of a more complex response.

So back to poops! Let’s compare how our three different organizations deal with these kinds of messes:

  • The steamfitters: the foreman gets in your face, screams obscenities at you, and orders you to clean up the poop.
  • A large high tech company: your manager cleans up your poop for you. Several weeks later, the HR department puts on a Performance Improvement Plan, which means that for the next 12-18 months, the company starts building up a case for firing you. During this awkward time period, you, your boss, and the HR department begin rooting for a merger or layoff. That way everyone gets what they want: you still get a severance package, and HR can get rid of you quietly.
  • Transcriptase: a bunch of writers point at the poop and say, “Hey, that’s not very punk.”

Unlike the steamfitters foreman or the HR department, the SF community is completely decentralized, so all Transcriptase can do is attempt to appeal to community standards. Transcriptase’s goal is to raise the penalty for being an unsocialized loon from zero to… something. (Of course I say “unsocialized loon” because I agree with Transcriptase. Naturally the unsocialized loons would argue that they’re totally not unsocialized and that help! help! they’re being oppressed, you know the drill.)

I’m guessing that Carl is keenly aware of these issues because he works in academia. As You Know Bob, in academia there are all sorts of groups trying to exercise power by appealing to community standards. And from what I remember from my academic experience in the mid-1990s, these groups could be incredibly annoying even when you almost entirely agreed with them. You could understand why people might poop on their lawn just to rile them up.

Furthermore, the strategy of appealing to community standards is… less broadly useful than it first appears. If the subject is controversial and the community is split 50/50, appealing to community standards will fail — there are no community standards to appeal to. If the subject is utterly uncontroversial, then there’s no point in appealing to community standards — we don’t have to thoughtfully consider the views of the crazy lady shrieking that Barack Obama is Malcolm X’s illegitimate child, we can just ignore her. Or as Carl might put it, if we really are talking about a universal standard, then there’s no real issue in the first place. The lesson here is that appealing to community standards can be a useful strategy, but only in a certain narrow range of the Overton Window.

So how to avoid becoming uniquely vulnerable to poops? First, only go with the community standards approach if you’re in the right range of public opinion: “acceptable” or “sensible”. You have to be popular, but not too popular (or why bother). Second, you must assert your authority with quiet confidence. Radicals can gain traction by stirring the pot, flinging some poop. However, if you’re winning and just need to convince the last thirty or twenty or ten percent, you’re not a radical anymore. You’re arguing from a position of (implicit) authority and strength… which forces you to act like a winner, an Alpha. Radical action can be a great strategy, and it’s also more fun and exciting. But it’s not a great strategy when you’re already (mostly) winning.

With all that in mind, I believe that Transcriptase is doing the right thing and is reasonably protected from poops. On the issue of quietly exercising authority, Transcriptase isn’t panicking or running around like when the Parents Television Council finds a new fleeting obscenity on TV. They’re basically saying, “we think this behavior is uncool” and leaving it at that. This is an approach tailor-made for the anarchic world of SF readers and writers. Now where Transcriptase might end up failing is on the first issue of whether they actually do have community consensus. I mean, I think they do, and I hope they do. But who knows? John Ringo sells a poopload of books.