Sad Puppy, Why Are You So Sad? An Investigation


You know, a lot of times it’s easy to reflexively feel compassion, if you’ve made that a goal, for people you might otherwise dismiss. Being automatically predisposed toward understanding what a monster is, and how they got there, can get you to a lot of places. Even when it’s smarter to keep it to yourself, like in situations where somebody you don’t generally agree with, says something you do agree with, when it’s about people you’re supposed to agree with:

You can’t critique the left from the left without a lot of elbow grease. You can’t show understanding toward faith or conservatism without alienating people who feel betrayed that you don’t agree about everything, which is how the fundamentals of our identities often feel: Like they are everything. This is probably the most edited paragraph I have ever written, because I have written and immediately erased so many things, because I want you to stay with me on this. Suffice to say, we want to know right out of the gate who the good guys and the bad guys are.

When you pick a side you are putting some of yourself into the overall viewpoint of your side, that’s just human nature. But the part we don’t talk about is that this works like a horcrux, which is to say that when you question my viewpoint, you are in a very real way attacking me. Nobody holds wrong opinions on purpose, that’s oxymoronic: People think and feel things because they make sense to them.

Here’s an example: When the President says that your nation stands behind you, and has created a situation in which you have been able to succeed, it is not that hard to turn that idea into an attack on you. You were there, you know how hard it was to get where you are. You know about all the people holding you back, holding you down. I think maybe a better word than “privilege,” which has been worn to shreds, would be simply: advantage.

A lucky man who does nothing with his luck is not very lucky. A man who uses his advantages in his favor should have the grace to acknowledge them.


Because we are so interested in this very Calvinist, unsophisticated sports game of saying of who is bad and who is good, that gets wiped away. We’re too stressed out, or feeling too much pressure from the problems these people are acting out, or we’re distracted, and we just cut the corner: This person is bad, and that means all bets are off.

The best and most precise formulation of the Golden Rule, Kant’s Categorical imperative, gets expressed a ton of different ways, but my favorite is: We don’t treat people like means, only ends. I mean, there’s a whole body of Ethics study about why and how that’s the best way to say it, but it comes out here: We don’t treat people of color, or gay people, or women; men, or straight people, or white or cis people, as means. We don’t let them carry our burdens for us.

Not because they’re victims, not because we’re guilty—or conversely, not because they have power or advantages over us—but solely and entirely because they are people.

It’s easy to talk about when it’s coming from a position of power, which is what social justice is about. But it’s absolutely impossible to establish a framework in which it holds the other way, in which we hold ourselves to the higher standard—understanding that they are not just people, they are our people—because the war is so much easier than peace. Because as good liberals we understand that the opposite of hate is more hate.

Yeah. An asshole is still an asshole, regardless of where he is coming from: That’s true. But it’s also true that we take the easy way out by bringing guns to gunfights, guns to knife fights, guns to name-calling, guns to anything. It’s a good way to show that we are good, by pointing out to everybody else who is bad.

Nothing new about this. Nothing particularly interesting about this. But it’s the consequences of this, these little momentary witch hunts, these easy-target call-outs, that accrete and accumulate into the kind of seeming force that these chuckers are talking about when they refer to “SJWs” and “liberal conspiracies” and things like that. You go looking for monsters, you will find them: You will also find that you’ve made yourself a better monster, by giving them something to push back against.

If we can imagine—not believe, okay, just imagine—that there is a scale in place, that the “micro” in microaggression, for example, means something. That our reaction can come at settings other than ten. Let’s try something we’ve all experienced:

Let’s say I walk into a store looking to buy some kind of sports gear, and it becomes clear that I am gay, and the two employees look at each other when they think I won’t notice, that look we all can give each other sometimes, and then I make my purchase and leave.

That was bad. It wasn’t as bad as being murdered. It wasn’t as bad as being denied service, even. It just sucked. It was bad.

It was bad because they exist in the same system I do, which says that we must reward each other for, and by, policing the boundaries of sexuality and gender: Locking eyes over my fabulous self let those two men reaffirm they were okay, in a world that is very scary and gets scarier every day, if you have a weakness for that kind of pressure. That by asserting what power they do have, they could ward off the demons in service of the power they don’t have, which is to look that system in the eye and tell it to fuck off. (A power I have asserted—in turn and n.b.—by existing. A power that comes with a multivalent and pretty heavy, welcome price.)

At the intersection of these smaller and larger power plays, the million kinds of gravity that are pulling down on all of us at different strengths, there is the possibility of a certain kind of community: At best, this is successful activism, an understanding of the need for and the way to achieve lasting change. At worst, it’s a loose affiliation of childish pockets of rage that spend more time attacking and complaining about one another than by ever engaging with the world it wishes were different.


I think if we treated, say, casual litterbugs with the same blacklist techniques that we do unreconstructed idiots like those two above—once tainted, never to be redeemed—we could create a thriving subculture of people within a few days who would spend all their money on proudly buying garbage and spreading it on every lawn they see.

Not like children saying “you think I’m bad, I’ll show you bad”—that is just about needing to have boundaries, to feel safe—but like adults: “I know I’m not bad, so if you think this is bad, it must be very good. Or else why would I do it? And if you think it’s bad, then you’re bad. And whatever you think is good must be evil as hell.”

A new church would spring up within the year, The Fellowship of the Unrecycled Chik-Fil-A Bag. Some very few people would get very rich. The GOP would get wind of it, make littering a large plank in the platform, then use their time machine rhetoric to claim it always had been. “Ronald Reagan was a proud litterbug,” the posters would say. “Or else why would we do it?”

And too, recycling or carrying your own shopping bags would become the sign of the homosexual, feminazi, child-rapist, NPR-listening elite.

Would those people be evil? No, they would be dicks, but that’s already true of them, individually. They are looking for a part of the world they can make feel as bad as they, for whatever reason, feel. That’s the rank and file, at least. At the top would be people who do not themselves litter, but know a constituency and a consumer base when they see it.

All fundamentalisms—Christian, political conservatist; even benign or awesome ones like paganism, farm-to-table foodyism, various bisexual utopias of yore—are basically the same: They look at the world the way it is, then critique backwards to a time when things were just coincidentally better for the person creating the fundamentalism. The “Good Old Days” were only ever good to a very small group, and as formulated they never really existed at all. But it’s a particularly common mental move, to create a fairyland where everything worked a lot better, where it didn’t hurt, where the right people knew to keep quiet: To turn the clock not only back but sideways.


This is all relevant now, which is why I erred on the side of overexplaining the playing field above, because it’s not getting a lot of traction in the latest “culture war” dust-up, which is the mob-style sabotage of the highest honor in science fiction and fantasy, the Worldcon Hugo. You may think this isn’t relevant because you don’t care about SF, or because it’s nerds and fandom, or because they’re all starting to blur together: But this is a perfect test case to discuss things you very much do care about, their present and their future, which is why I want to talk about it.

I’ll link out at the bottom for more background, but hopefully you won’t need to much moving forward. I will say upfront that the so-called “Rabid Puppies” are a cult of personality and don’t matter. It’s the co-opting of a movement by one insane, pretty terrible human. Gamergate saw the same, with the likes of Mike Cernovich: People who felt the energy and the SEO of a pissed-off segment of the population and knew that confusion was worth cash money, so they jumped in. I am not concerned with Beale, for the same reason I wouldn’t be interested in working with Adam Baldwin, say: I don’t want people like that in my house, whether they come in through the door or through my computer screen.

However, the “Sad Puppies” interest me and I’ll tell you why. It’s not just one reason. It’s the intersection of a lot of things that have been going on for a while, in one neatly bowtied package. Read these cohorts and tell me this isn’t relevant to your life:

  • You’ve got the #notallmen crew, men who are so blissfully unable to conceive of a narrative that isn’t centered on them he automatically hears any story of a woman’s experience as somehow an attack solely on him.
  • There’s the generally thirsty misogynists and Nice Guys, who know that women have a secret and they won’t tell what it is. These are the guys who ready to ride for any cause, have never heard of the Hugos before this year, and could care less as long as they can feel less criticized moving forward. Less like something they deserved has been taken away.
  • You’ve got the “special rights” equivalent, who have been told that any experience different from theirs is invalid, broken, extraneous: People of Color are just white people who messed up being white, gay people are just straight people who do this one weird thing.
  • And most virulent of all, the Tea Party populists, those who think that it’s high time we stop rewarding excellence if that means defining it the way the dictionary does. Familiar from the Sarah Palin campaign in particular, it takes the bizarrely self-defeating tack: “Now I never said I wrote the Great American Novel,” says our aw-shucks protagonist, “But you better treat me like I did.”

These last are the ones that get the loudest voice in the movement, because they speak to something very specific in the culture: As science fiction and other genre gains ground in the mainstream, “geeks” are put into what I think we can understand is a reasonably tricky bind.


On the one hand, your identity is about being braver than the abuse you suffered long ago for being into things that weren’t cool. On the other hand, everybody is finally getting it—put those two hands together, and it starts to feel like a major part of your life is literally being taken away. Often by people over whom it was previously in your vested interest to feel superior, whether because of intellect (jocks) or social pressure (women). The assholes win again.

And then internally, you have the weird feeling that your entertainment itself is turning on you: Telling stories about women, and minorities; telling different stories than the stories you wanted to hear. Maybe this makes you insecure, maybe not: But suddenly your escapism isn’t what it used to be. It doesn’t feel as good.

Of course, the most bizarre part about relating this to the Hugos in the first place is that it’s a single award, intended to be judged on literary merit. It doesn’t really affect sales, so a Hugo going to whatever literary work is not taking anything out of your hands. You can still read the same kind of novels you like, watch the same kind of movies you like, and have the same conversations you like to have.

It’s just that now you are aware of the Hugos, you feel judged all over again.

What it comes down to is this: It takes a certain kind of person to see an award, desire that award, and then—rather than earning it; rather than reaching higher, trying harder, analyzing the path to that goal—instead choose the laziness of changing the definitions under which it is awarded. That is a very special kind of crazy.

It’s also one we see all the time. “Too Big To Fail” is one way in which the rules were changed, rather than the behavior; “climate change” is another. Lobbyist is a career for a reason, and the reason is this: To buy or bully your way into changing the rules to suit yourself. Which brings in the final part of Puppygate, which I have seen almost nobody mention directly:

If your book isn’t famously good, it’s probably because you aren’t a very good writer.

And the reason we don’t talk about that is, I think, the key to the whole thing.


Is a deeply engrained thing in culture, essentially a Prime Directive: “Thou shalt not exclude as you have been excluded.” Meaning, even if there is a total dud in your D&D group, somebody who annoys everybody or—more usually—is a flat-out asshole, it’s not okay to leave him out of the group, because it would feel bad if they did it to you, and aren’t we all banding together as geeks to get away from that kind of thing. I’m not a huge fan of the concept, but I understand it.

And who else understands it is: Geeks. It’s the easiest thing in the world to use cynically, and yet nobody is coming clean about the fact that now that’s all it is good for.

“Bullying” was the most successful go-to for the Gamergaters, because they realized that it’s the perfect smear: Label someone a bully and you’re not only tarnishing their reputation, but also that of anyone who associates with them. As concepts, these are worn out and useless, commodified at the same rate genre has penetrated the mainstream. These are victims without their corresponding bullies, using the specter of bullying to bully others in turn. The geeks have become the jocks.

You can’t write about minorities or women, because that’s bullying white men who just want to read about spaceships. You can’t talk about rape culture, because that’s bullying Nice Guys who just want to love their milady. You can’t tell someone their favorite book isn’t literature and therefore shouldn’t win an award for literature, because you are bullying them with your intellect.

You can’t tell a writer he doesn’t deserve an award, because that’s bullying his art. Even if he hasn’t written something that falls under that award’s purview. If the Hugos reward literary work over pulp work—proudly derivative, deeply conservative, absurdly unimaginative—then the Hugos need to change. The definition of literary merit needs to change.

“The world needs to change,” these boys are saying, “Around us. It needs to change back.”

Not going to happen. We can’t go back to this imaginary Luke Skywalker time where the world was just what they wanted, because it never really existed. But if you honestly don’t think this basic, boring, teenage-boy pathology is something we can overcome, you don’t know enough good men. And for every single one of those good men in your life to live, the shitty teenage boy they once were had to die.

So while it’s true that a dying thing deserves to scream, I also believe it deserves nothing less than humor, and our greatest compassion, as it goes. Most of the time, often quite harshly indeed, that’s the best way to burn off the things we—you, me; your people; our people—don’t need anymore.

Because as much as it feels like giving in, appeasement, knuckling under, you already know what the opposite of hate, and war, is. It’s the first thing you ever knew.



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