In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my new Locus column, “Jeannette Ng Was Right: John W. Campbell Was a Fascist,“which revisits Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Awards speech from this summer’s World Science Fiction convention.
As far as I know, I’m the only person to have won both awards named for Campbell, which, I think, gives me license to speak on the subject. I think that Ng was absolutely right about Campbell and his legacy, and I think that understanding that the good that people do doesn’t erase the harms they cause (and vice-versa) is critical to navigating a world of flawed people.
Here’s the thing: neither one of those facets of Campbell cancels the other one out. Just as it’s not true that any amount of good deeds done for some people can repair the harms he visited on others, it’s also true that none of those harms cancel out the kindnesses he did for the people he was kind to.
Life is not a ledger. Your sins can’t be paid off through good deeds. Your good deeds are not cancelled by your sins. Your sins and your good deeds live alongside one another. They coexist in superposition.
You (and I) can (and should) atone for our misdeeds. We can (and should) apologize for them to the people we’ve wronged. We should do those things, not because they will erase our misdeeds, but because the only thing worse than being really wrong is not learning to be better.
People are flawed vessels. The circumstances around us – our social norms and institutions – can be structured to bring out our worst natures or our best. We can invite Isaac Asimov to our cons to deliver a lecture on “The Power of Posterior Pinching” in which he would literally advise men on how to grope the women in attendance, or we can create and enforce a Code of Conduct that would bounce anyone, up to and including the con chair and the guest of honor, who tried a stunt like that.