Lessons for SMoFs

Science fiction and fantasy is having an inclusion crisis of their own at the moment. It’s been brewing for years, but it was brought to a head by the Readercon sexual harassment incident and follow-up, and by the fact that the self-confessed Readercon harasser was working at the Chicago Worldcon (Chicon) this last weekend.

I was joking last night with a friend who is a SMoF, one of the Secret Masters of Fandom, the people who run all the things, usually on a volunteer basis. I suggested that I needed to offer to come speak at a meeting of all the SMoFs to tell them what lessons they needed to learn from skeptic/atheist fight. I figure they’re going to learn these lessons one way or another. Listening to someone involved here would just mean they didn’t have to learn the painful way.

Then I saw N.K. Jemisin’s post, which linked back to Greta. They’re already paying attention. Time to make sure the right lessons are learned.

So, you’re a SMoF, looking around you in a bit of confusion as to how this all blew up so quickly. (Not all of you are, but most of the ones who aren’t don’t need this post, except to hand to someone else.) What do you need to know?

1. This didn’t blow up quickly.

Jemisin makes this point beautifully:

When the usual targets complain about their treatment, they have to listen to what I like to call The Egalitarianism Speech. That’s the speech that goes, “Can’t we all just get along? Shut up a little and we can. Stop asking for change and we can. Everything was fine before you started complaining. We’re all equal here, after all.”

We are not. But we can be, eventually, if things change. What is necessary to bring about this change is sometimes, yes, vitriol, because polite discussions have already been had — in spades — and they haven’t worked.

I’m a fan. I’m friends with a number of SMoFs and authors. I’ve seen this. They’ve seen this. There is nothing new about what is being said or what is being asked for. The only thing new is that the people asking have hit a critical mass and positions in which they have power. And they know it.

2. This isn’t going away.

Look around you. Look at the people who are disagreeing with you. They’re mostly younger than you are. That doesn’t make them naive. That makes them the future.

Look at the age graphs on political positions in the U.S. (I can’t speak for other countries.) People are socially more liberal every generation. Psychologists looked at this data when it first came out and decided that people got more conservative as they got older. Now that we have the additional data from the intervening time, we know that’s not true. The world is getting more progressive.

The people disagreeing with you are going to move these things, make changes happen, with you or through you. If they don’t like the fandom you preside over, they’ll just create their own. Remember Minicon. Remember CONvergence. These people are just as good and smart and dedicated as you were when you started volunteering. They’ll take over one of these days. You have the power to decide whether today is that day.

3. This isn’t a party for you and your friends.

You can get your buddies together without having committee meetings for a year first. That isn’t what you’re doing here. I can’t explain it anywhere near as well as Rose Fox did yesterday.

It’s clear that cultural programming teaches us to minimize and ignore people targeted by harassers at conventions (and elsewhere, but conventions are my focus here). I believe that the most immediately effective way of overcoming this programming is to focus on conventions as businesses providing services, and on convention attendees as customers. Specifically, conventions are in the business of providing safe, enjoyable environments where fun things happen and people have a good time. And that means conventions need to feel entirely free to oust any individual customer who’s causing problems for others, without focusing on where that person will go or how they will feel afterwards. (It also has implications for other aspects of convention-running, such as selecting sites and designing spaces and materials to be universally accessible, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

The narrative that conventions should care about is not sin-repentance-redemption or victimhood-struggle-triumph. The narrative is purchase-enjoy-repeat: that is, “I went to a convention, I had a good time, I plan to go back.” It is the narrative of a satisfied customer, which makes for a healthy business. Anyone who perpetrates harassment at a convention is disrupting that narrative, and convention organizers should not hesitate to write them out of it.

Read the whole thing. Give yourself time for it to sink in and to think about it, because it is very much counter to the narratives that fan-run conventions live on. It’s how everyone outside the concom and their friends think about conventions, however, and they’re the people talking to you right now. Don’t make stupid mistakes you could have avoided because you were reading or listening with the wrong assumptions.

4. Internet people are real people.

There is a tendency to dismiss criticism that comes from bloggers, twitterers, or over Facebook as being not real somehow, as though the people who do these things don’t do anything else. That criticism is treated as coming from people who don’t understand the realities of the world. People act as though the critics are people who are sitting above it all with no risk to themselves.

Don’t do that. Fight the tendency to think that. Don’t let others fall into thinking that.

Everybody is on the internet these days, commenting, tweeting, posting pictures of their cats for everyone to see. The people who are complaining on the internet? They’re your guests. They’re the writers, editors, actors, and other creators who sit on your panels and make people laugh and think. They’re your cosplayers and masqueraders. They’re your vendors and artists. They’re your badgers. They’re your audiences, who pay to run your conventions. They’re your advertising when you have no budget to advertise.

They’re all the people you can’t do this without. They know they add to your convention. They’ll know very quickly if you tell them they don’t count. Don’t do that.

5. The internet is a stage that lasts forever.

When you’re a SMoF and there’s a fight raging, you lose the chance to make off-handed remarks. Everything you do will be seen. Everything will be connected to the events you run, unless the rest of the group running the event decides to stand up and repudiate it. You are continually representing more than your own opinion. It can suck, but it’s true.

You don’t have to believe me. You can ask the guy who thought Facebook and blog comments shouldn’t be held against him.

You don’t have the luxury of venting personal hurt or lashing back at someone who swatted at you without it reflecting on your group. You don’t have the luxury of making naive comments on subjects people have been trying to educate you about for years. You don’t have the luxury of indulging in long-standing animosities by taking pot-shots at people you dislike who are standing up for the ideals of a group. You don’t have the luxury of promoting something by a friend without checking that what your promoting isn’t a political move you may not support.

This is politics. It’s tricky. Shutting up and listening, however, is almost never the wrong move.

6. You have to see the ugly parts.

If you’re going to engage in this conversation anyway, you have a responsibility to be informed. It won’t always be easy. We’re talking about privilege–sexism, racism, classism, ableism: it’s privilege at work. This means there’s a very good chance that everything about the society in which you live has trained you to look away from it and deny it. This means the assumptions buried in most of the behavior around it are likely invisible to you. It’s going to take work to see what is going on.

What will you have to work to see? You’ll have to work to hear, “You don’t have any right to ask for anything.” You’ll have to work to hear, “It’s a special favor to create a place that suits your needs as well as it suits mine.” You’ll have to work to hear, “Look, you didn’t do any work for this space you have always been excluded from.” You’ll have to work to hear, “Everything was fine for me until you started complaining.”

You’ll have to work to stop saying someone should have expected some kind of bad treatment. Think about it for a minute. Do you really want your event to be somewhere people expect bad treatment? No, but it’s one of those nasty cultural narratives we carry with us that takes work to drop.

You’ll have to stop making excuses for ignorance at some point. There will always be new people who are ignorant, but there are also others who will claim ignorance years into these arguments. They’re not ignorant, and you’ll have to look that in the face.

You’ll have to see the people who really are bigots. You’ll have to see the people who really are predators. You’ll have to see the people who act with a veneer of civility right up to the point where someone challenges them and then thinks anything goes.

You can’t deny these problems and fix them at the same time. You can’t deny them once they’ve been pointed out to you and still claim to be good stewards for your events. You have to see them and deal with the reality that they exist.

7. If you deny there is a problem, we will just get louder.

The minute you tell me you don’t want to fix your problems, I’m done. I’m elsewhere. I will not waste one minute more on you. I won’t be the only one. You’ll be abandoned in droves. None of us will bother you with these problems again. We’ll just create that new event.

That isn’t what people say, however, even to themselves. They say, instead, that there is no problem. That doesn’t work.

You can’t tell us hostile acts don’t happen. That just pushes more people into coming forward. Some of those people will have already told you there was a problem, and having denied it will just get you into more hot water. You can’t minimize it. We can document how nasty it gets. We can put it in the broader societal context, which involves telling you how you’re supporting the greater ugliness of our culture. You won’t like that. It’s relevant, and it’s accurate, but it’s as uncomfortable as hell to be told, for example, that you’re propping up rape culture.

You don’t have the power to shut people up this way. You don’t have the facts on your side. It’s better for everyone if you just don’t try.

8. You can become “that con“.

You set the tone for and details of your event. Deny that harassing behavior is a problem? Harassers will feel more welcome at your event. Deny that racism is a problem? Racists will feel more welcome at your event. Deny that class and disability are meaningful points to consider when setting up your con? You’re more likely to make decisions that exclude people by design.

I’ve heard tell that some of the “not gonna make any changes, nuh-uh” crowd among the SMoFs are claiming that all of SMoFdom is with them on this. I, personally, know better. There are cons that are stepping up with a minimum of pushing from the rest of fandom to make their events safer and more inclusive. There are SMoFs being innovative in this regard.

How many events happen every holiday weekend in F&SF? People have to make choices. People are making choices, based on what their friends say, based on what people say online, based on the interactions they have with SMoFs.

Who is going to choose you? The decisions you’re making right now, the things you’re saying in public, those influence that choice.

Be careful in how you step right now.

Lessons for SMoFs

10 thoughts on “Lessons for SMoFs

  1. 1

    Anyone who perpetrates harassment at a convention is disrupting that narrative, and convention organizers should not hesitate to write them out of it.

    It was amazing to me how many people had (or were pretending to have) truly warped priorities on that point. They held out the spectre of someone being wrongfully kicked out of a convention as if it was The Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen, while dismissing the consequences of allowing harassers to ruin other people’s experiences.

    And even ignoring the warped ethical values revealed by such an attitude, it’s also warped from a cold, pragmatic viewpoint. It’s simply dumb business to allow an obnoxious customer to ruin the experiences of others. I think it was the Crommunist who brought up his experiences as a bouncer: a well-run bar understands that a disruptive drunk costs you far more business than their drink purchases could ever make up for.

  2. 4

    Something relevant i ran across recently, that i posted on Lousy Canuck’s too–Colleen Doran, a veteran comics artist and writer who suffered serious campaigs of coordinated stalking and harassment in the 80s and 90s which was brushed as ‘hysterical”, you’re being mean to the poor socially mal-adept/mentally ill menz, etc etc, responds to a Chill Girl saying women shld just suck it up, on her blog (www.adistantsoil.com)

    “I like to think younger generations of women will not have to grow up armored assholes to deal with assholes, tossing off a crusty “Get over it!” every time a young girl gets groped at a con, or gets a barrage of rape threats on twitter. I prefer a world where men and women stand up and say, “This is not acceptable,” to a world where men and women chastise others to develop crocodile hides as if ugly words and ugly actions bounce off it.

    It doesn’t. It just makes you ugly, too.”

  3. 5

    (i was wondering if it could be, that CD is responding to the same ‘get tougher’ post that Nora Jemisin is, since fandom can be a small town…..but the timeline is wrong so it must be someone else bc there is unf not a shortage of Chill Girls….)

  4. 6

    […] These things aren’t universal yet, however. There are places where “us” is still a pretty exclusive group. This is particularly true when hard choices have to be made between the historical “us” and the inclusive “us” or when “us” is being asked to include people who might be less than perfect–unlike, of course, the rest of “us”. We have a ways to go. […]

  5. 8

    @1 screechymonkey

    That’s an interesting point. Like the “free speech” argument, where they confuse restrictions on government action for some personal right to say anything they want free of consequence, they similarly have confused a maxim of Enlightenment procedural justice — better for a guilty person to go free than an innocent be incarcerated — for some statement of general morality that applies to all locations equally.

    There is no “innocent until proven guilty” absent the state seeking to deprive someone of their liberty or property. There’s a strong argument that erring on the side of protecting conference goers at the expense of an occasional wrongful ousting (which can be corrected via refunds and other monetary compensation) is a worthwhile calculation, especially given the current climate.

    It’s easy to spurt out these out-of-place platitudes without considering their factual impact. It’s just a means of appearing to sound intelligent while slithering out of the real discussion.

  6. 9

    Look at the people who are disagreeing with you. They’re mostly younger than you are… [they] are going to move these things, make changes happen, with you or through you.

    Jeez I hope you’re right. But I cannot stop thinking how many dreary decades it has been since I was humming along to this:

    Your old road is rapidly agin’
    Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand…

  7. 10

    It’s worth noting that it’s remarkably easy for what I can only call idiot organizers to get this *exactly backwards* and start expelling the victims. Or, to use the model you’re describing, kick out the decent customers for complaining, while attempting to get more business from the disruptive customers.

    It’s extremely frequent in “commercial” services-providing operations. It usually ends *very* badly for the business or conference involved, but it’s very common. You have to have organizers with enough sense to be able to make some *effort* to tell who’s harassing who. And perhaps this is something which the F&SF conventions can learn from skeptics, who have been really careful to collect corroborating evidence and build a portfolio of evidence; something which I have to say SF conference organizers are not so good about.

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