Superversive Blog: Wherefore Art Thou, Culture War?

Hello, All! 

Welcome back, as Superversive Blog recovers from its summer hiatus. Today, we have an interesting treat, especially for those of you who appreciate psychology and personality tests!


The Culture War Posts!



The recent intrusion of the current culture war into the sphere of Science Fiction has drawn the attention of people beyond fandom. One such person is author Ruth Johnston. Known previously for her excellent scholarly works on Beowulf and the Middle Ages, she has more recently turned her efforts to a fascinating new book that takes a fresh look at the work of psychologist Carl Jung.

Ruth’s intriguing premise is that we have been misinterpreting how to apply Jung’s concepts for decades. In her book, Re-Modeling the Mind, she offers a remodeling of Jung’s ideas that produce self-help concepts that won’t exasperate smart and creative people.

Ruth has a theory about how personality types, as defined by her remodeling of Jung, explain the culture war, this years Hugos, and some other issues in fandom today. She has generously agreed to a three part series on the subject.

             Part One will give a brief explanation of her theory as applicable.

                          Part Two will apply her theory to characters in John’s Night Land stories. 

Part Three will tackle “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” as well as the larger Hugo/culture war picture.


Part One:  What Forces Drive the SciFi Culture Wars?

Q: In the Afterword to your new book, you suggest that ideas about personality might help us understand "culture wars" by showing how the sides just see the world differently.  What do you mean by "personality-based worldviews"? 

A: The thesis of Re-Modeling the Mind is that our brains can't process all of the information that comes at us constantly, so each brain organizes itself around more limited options, depending on the neural strengths it already has. When we talk about "personality" we mean these limitations and abilities, which are usually clearly visible when we watch each other. We know ourselves this way, too. We know there are things we simply can't take in, or if we can take in the facts, we can't manage them to make decisions. There are things we pay close attention to, and other things we just can't be bothered with. Personality is this very real neural patterning that filters the world so that it's manageable.

But this means that our personalities also limit and even blind us to things other people can perceive and manage. We're all in the same physical world, in the sense that we agree on where the objects are, so that we can avoid running into them. But at a more complex level, we really don't all live in the same world. Our personalities can have such root-level different views of the world that we can barely have conversations. This is what I'd call a personality-based worldview.

I'm not a science-fiction reader, and I'd never heard of the Hugos until this year. But watching the ferocity of the battles made me feel convinced that at least some of this culture war is provoked by a clash of personality-based worldviews. In other words, probably the leaders and many supporters of each faction share some personality traits so that they all "live" in a similar world. In each faction's "world," its values are not only sensible but the only possible ones. Or if not the only possible ones, the only morally right or safe ones. This is why it's so hard to have a conversation. It's self-evident to each faction that its values are right, and the arguments offered by the other faction hold no water in their worldview. A lot of people on both sides feel that if So and So wins a prize, moral right or wrong will be rewarded.


 Q: For the writers I know, the issue isn't winning a prize. Larry Correia and others involved with the "sad puppies" initiative specifically recused themselves from being considered for prizes. How do we get from personality differences, which we deal with every day, to an emotional war over culture?

A: I think the roots are in people's inborn, instinctive sense of danger and safety. It's astonishing to see how each faction in the Hugo controversy is not only indifferent to but grandly dismissive of the other faction's concern about danger. It's almost like interviewing both a wolf and a hare, and while the hare explains he doesn’t want to be torn into ligament shreds, the wolf says passionately that he's afraid of slow starvation and shouldn't we be concerned for him too? They both have a point, but they're both justifiably indifferent to the other's plight. I think that human minds have some of these animal-like survival fears, and that our personalities are organized around them.

The 20th century showed us something like Poe's Law: you can't come up with a philosophical disagreement so trivial that some government or militia won't kill over it. You can try, but it won't work; somewhere in the 20th century, someone died for a reason even stupider. Like wearing glasses or receiving a letter. So while most of us don't have real reasons to fear, those reasons do exist and we know it. You can hear the echoes in references to the KKK, Marx, hate-groups, and warriors, as well as in phrases like "burn it down." Both sides vow to deny each other's books the means to "live" by not buying anything written by the wrong person, and both sides feel like they're on the verge of defeat unless they can muster more supporters. The 20th century left us traumatized and unwilling to trust each other for kindness; we believe in striking hard and first. Even when it's just about buying books!

In my way of modeling personality, our deepest fears are centrally important. I believe that inborn, instinctive ideas are what Jung meant by his famous phrase "collective unconscious." People often think it means something like the Borg or some New Agey space-mind we're all part of, but I think Jung made it clear in a few places that he meant something like "the stuff that's inborn in all minds, like animal instinct." Horses know how to stand up and run, kangaroo joeys know how to crawl into the marsupial pouch, newly-hatched ducklings know how to paddle. If we look at what's important to a human baby's survival, it isn't anything like these, of course apart from the instinct to nurse. Human beings are the greatest protectors and, at the same time, antagonists and predators, of other humans. The survival instincts we need are about human society and emotions. Inborn personality draws some babies to study emotions and relationships, others to study behavior and rules, others appearances of the environment around them. So as adults, our personalities are still organized around the kind of inborn templates we have: what is the world supposed to look like? When this template is violated, we feel uncertain or even afraid.


Q: Science fiction has always been about exploring and asking questions, which is more about challenging fears than hiding from them. Why is all this happening in science fiction?

A: Well, the other pole of personality is the part of our minds that are open, exploring, questioning, and more: pragmatic, optimistic, flexible, and ready to take any opportunity. We're all a mix of mental functions that operate in this open, pragmatic way and others that operate by inborn templates and fears. Science fiction was invented by one particular mental function in the open, exploring, optimistic mode: Extroverted Intuition. Intuition is a common daily word, and my use of it isn't far different from the ordinary meaning. It means consulting our nonverbal, super-fast brains to find connections between things in the world. In its simplest form, Intuition comes out in superstitions, prejudices and hunches, but in about one-quarter of the population, it's a well-developed interest in abstract ideas. Personalities with very strong, highly-developed Intuition are interested in impractical questions of what-if.

I think there have always been two polarities in science fiction, though again I speak as an outsider, not a fan. In early sci-fi, a space ship goes to another planet, and what happens? Space travelers could discover amazing hidden civilizations or end up dying of a hideous disease; the story's outlook could be optimistic or pessimistic. The roots of this optimism or pessimism are in which way our Intuition views the world. Of course, you can't automatically match stories and authors saying "the story is this way, so the writer must be too," since writing is art. But at the same time, stories come from our hearts and usually refract part of our worldview. Intuition, as a facet of personality, can operate in an exploring, optimistic, pragmatic way (Extroverted Intuition) or in a way that's focused on uncovering hidden truths to save us from danger (Introverted Intuition). The two kinds of Intuition are interested in slightly different questions and outcomes.

Science fiction fans in the last 100 years have been split between personalities with Extroverted and Introverted Intuition. Nobody really noticed most of the time, because Intuitive personalities can enjoy reading the projected scenarios and questions of both kinds of Intuition. What sci-fi fans saw was the unity among them: they were all these people who felt alienated from concrete, practical culture, but they were unified in loving stories in which impossible things could happen and really outlandish questions could be explored. I think what's going on now is that the two Intuitive worldviews—Introverted and Extroverted—are drawing farther apart, for a lot of reasons both inside and outside of sci-fi culture. When people though they were all alike, and then they discover a huge difference, it feels like betrayal.


Q: Why does the debate focus so tightly on gender and race? That's not what science fiction used to be about. You suggested that Intuition is interested in abstract ideas and questions. Then why are people suddenly judging by message or frivolous things, such as the author's physical appearance?

A: This is what fascinates me about the controversy, because it dovetails neatly with the personality model I've developed. Balancing Intuition, there's Sensing, which is how we process the real world of objects, motion, and appearances. It, too, can come in a mode where it's outgoing, exploring, flexible, optimistic, and pragmatic, and again this is called Extroverted Sensing. Or it can come in a mode where it's the animal instinct telling us about danger, and then it's constantly comparing what it sees outside with the inner template of what the world should look like. That’s called Introverted Sensing. When the outside world matches the template, all is well, just like when a rabbit sees a blue sky with only birds who fly like songbirds, it keeps nibbling grass. That's what the sky is supposed to look like, in the rabbit's instinctual image. When the sky includes a hawk or something (like a RC airplane) that doesn't move like a songbird, the rabbit assumes that it's in danger, freezes, then runs.

Introverted Sensing looks at people's appearances as well as the appearances of other things. When it's really strong in a personality, it causes uneasiness when people don't look just right. There's an image for each kind of person: a cop, a teacher, a President, a grandmother, a father, an innocent child, and so on. If you want to see these appearances in pure form, look at photos of Duchess Kate and her babies. They never have a single color or detail out of place, so I assume that Kate has a strong sense of these image/role templates. Jung talked about archetypes, inborn ideas. The social role images are the most famous kind of archetypes, though I believe we also have archetypes of ideas (like same/different, many/one), beauty, and relationships (like love and hatred). Introverted Sensing likes it when people "look right," because things just feel safe.

Personalities organize these mental abilities and trends according to natural rules that use minimal brain energy. In by far most people, it works out where Sensing and Intuition are opposite, to balance each other. Let's set aside for the time being the question of whether Sensing or Intuition is particularly important in a personality, because there's a whole range of relative importance. Regardless of relative importance, they come in two polarized pairs: Extroverted, optimistic, flexible Intuition and Introverted, template-based Sensing; or Introverted, template-based Intuition and Extroverted, optimistic, flexible Sensing.

 Since science fiction started out with flexible, exploring Intuition asking questions, I'll call that combination A, and the other B. A's sci-fi is more likely to really push boundaries of reality. It's flexible on all ideas about place, time, space, and being. However, it's not so flexible about social role images, because its Sensing is Introverted. It's looking at templates to see if things appear "right." The most obvious representative of A's work is in comic books and space opera, where anything can happen, but over and over, the people doing it are more or less knights/heroes, villains, kings, and mothers or princesses. When Introverted Sensing is weaker than Intuition, which is generally the case with sci-fi writers, it isn't as concerned about dressing right in today's society, but it loves fairy-tale roles.

The B combination has flexible, Extroverted, exploring Sensing but with danger-scanning, template-based Introverted Intuition. It's open to the world, including people, looking like anything at all. Extroverted Sensing can be unconcerned with social role archetypes, or sometimes it's downright hostile to them. It may intentionally bust up archetypes by dressing "wrong" or associating with people who aren't carrying out their archetypal roles in society, like grandmas who go 4-wheeling or transgendered teenagers. But its opposite number, Introverted Intuition, goes further. It sees images as potentially very dangerous, because they can be used as disguises. B's Introverted Intuition is less interested in exploring every conceivable question, like A's optimistic, flexible Intuition. It's more interested in chasing down what it feels to be the truest truth. Like a detective, it dislikes masks. If a social role appears to be noble and authoritative, Introverted Intuition suspects that someone may be using this role to hide corruption or ignorance. B's science fiction is less likely to be about kings, queens and knights, but sometimes it does feature them while showing that some other character, who doesn't look right for the role at all, is actually the noble, true one. Kings and other roles are false fronts to be torn away.

So let's rephrase the question: why is science fiction suddenly focused on how social role archetypes are being used? There are several layers of answers. In the first layer, we look at the writers and their works. Science fiction was founded mainly by A-type writers, the ones who created far-flung stories questioning reality, but with predictable, stable human roles. The B-type writers have always been involved, using the settings created by A's Extroverted Intuition, but for slightly different Introverted Intuition purposes. Their characters were less predictable and often had a twist, and their story arcs were often less optimistic. They focused more on internal motivation issues, less on solving external problems. As decades passed and people tried to do new things, Introverted Intuition used the science-fiction settings and conventions to pose questions about society and human nature. They asked less "what if?" and more, "if?"

Every art form goes through stages of starting out, becoming more popular, creating sub-genres, setting up organizations and judging, growing more sophisticated, and finally deliberately parodying itself while distancing from the simpler original forms. You can see it in painting, dance, music, and poetry. Science fiction seems to be in this later sophisticated stage, where there's a struggle for what is "good" in the art form.

Is A's art too unsophisticated? It poses external problems like running out of air, fighting monsters, and overcoming laws of nature, while using characters who are either good and noble or bad and treacherous. It uses basic archetypes without shame: male and female, family, innocent children, brave knight, noble princess, wise king, old wizard, and so on. Its monsters are usually ugly, unless they are beautiful with a sinister aura. There's a time-honored archetype for evil beauty, after all.

B's art eschews these straightforward forms. It uses the settings and conventions of travel in time and space, or civilizations on other planets, but it's really querying how far we can strip away archetypal images to find truer truth. All kinds of appearances are possibly masks, therefore bad. Both the writers and their art are on guard against ways in which a character's race or gender might shape their meaning. For this reason, B's science fiction may feature a villain as the hero, or it may blur distinctions of male and female. Science fiction's purpose, to Introverted Intuition, is to use its conventions to question archetypes of roles. A's art may use fine language, but it's not asking questions that Introverted Intuition considers important. It's taking role archetypes for granted instead of questioning them.


Q: So what you're calling B sees itself as actually better, that is, more sophisticated.  Therefore more worthy to win awards.

A: Yes, I think so. As an outsider, I'd say there isn't a quality difference between them, but I don't think that's how people feel on the inside. Looking at the Hugo-related blog arguments, I see very clear claims about quality. The faction that made "No Award" happen believes strongly that the nominated outsider/overlooked works (promoted by the "Sad Puppies") are almost entirely without merit. The outsider, challenger faction, for its part, claims that the faction that has been controlling the awards cares more about a social-justice message than about classic science fiction elements. If you ask either side whether the other side's works have literary merit, you'll get a loud "No," though perhaps with some polite qualifications. I see them as art forms produced by opposite worldviews. The merit of each is invisible to the other.


This ends Part One. Next up (Two Weeks hence), Ruth applies her astute and impartial observations to particular SF works. First a Puppy work (though not from the ballot.) Then, in her third installment, a well-known work lauded by the Anti-Puppies.

Ruth’s book, Re-Modeling the Mind is available for purchase here.

Her excellent, excellent, posts on life in the Middle Ages are available at All Things Medieval.