Political Correctness. Affirmative Action. Safe Spaces. Any change in favour of a group also imposes a change on others outside the group. So, why does the good to some people outweigh the bad to others?
A few days ago, I came across a reignited debate over the World Fantasy Awards replacing the H P Lovecraft statue. Most of the debate was around whether Lovecraft was or was not – judged on his writing – a good symbol for fantasy. However, one poster asked why the opinions of those authors who felt excluded by the statue were more important than the feelings of those who thought Lovecraft was a good choice. That reducing the sense of exclusion was more important seemed correct to me, but expressing a simple and logical reason proved harder.
Both a sense of exclusion and a sense of Lovecraft’s appropriateness are subjective rather than objective: changing the statue does not add or subtract from the criteria for entry; and Lovecraft is not the symbol for a genre in the way that (for example) a rose is for romance, or even the only author who had a huge impact on fantasy. So, why should those who wish a change outweigh those who do not?
Some, moral dilemmas seem obvious: psychopaths want to remove obstacles efficiently regardless of whether that method harms other people; people don’t want to be removed. Almost everyone instinctively agrees with laws against killing people because we feel like it, so sacrifices the psychopaths’ opinion in favour of others. And the logical support for this appears similarly easy to find: the desire of the many to be free from attack outweighs the desire of the few to not be restrained.
However, prioritising the desires of the many over those of the few is not a perfect rule: the opinions of the informed few can be a better guide for achieving lasting benefit to all than the desires of the many. And, even were it not subject to doubt, placing the minority ahead of others (as attempts at social change do) runs counter to the idea of the few having less weight than the many.
In many cases of proposed social change, this is because the minority is a false one: laws against racism draw on the commonality of humans rather than empowering a small group that is different from the majority.
But does that apply to matters such as the Lovecraft statue? Making the change doesn’t give anyone a greater right to enter than they had before. So why does the sense of exclusion outweigh the sense that Lovecraft is a good symbol for fantasy?
Because having the power to act is not only about objective ability; it also includes mental ability. One pair of statistics that stuck with me from my criminology lectures (which might have changed in the decades since) were: the group most likely to be attacked in the street in the United Kingdom are white males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five; the group most likely to fear being attacked in the street in the United Kingdom are black females between the ages of eighteen and thirty. A society based wholly on reducing attacks would focus its resources on protecting young white men. But a society built on protecting its members from fear as well as physical danger would devote resources to providing a sense of protection to other groups as well.
Even if the awards are objectively unbiased, removing Lovecraft removes a fear of prejudice. Whereas, there are no groups of authors who enter only because Lovecraft is the statue; no one who will be more excluded by a – for example – pen, quill, or book than by Howard’s bulging eyes.
If you accept that removing mental obstacles is as moral as removing physical or legal ones, the feelings of those who are excluded outweigh the feelings of those who are not where no question of creating a barrier exists. Of course, the question of how to weigh feelings where supporting one does exclude another is more complex.