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nanny
(trigger warning -- talk about harassment, bullying, sexual assault, PTSD, and other such things)


This was -- is -- to be my first WorldCon. I've been reading and talking about sf, fantasy and comics/graphic novels for a very long time, i.e., since I was about 7, over four decades ago. I've been playing RPGs and MMORPGs (and some MMOFPS) for about ten years. The first time I heard of cons was when I was in eighth grade, when most of the members of our Star Trek fan club went to a con in San Francisco (I was grounded at the time, IIRC). That would have been about 1975ish. I've always had friends who loved sf, and over the years, I've come to count among them authors, critics, artists, and experienced con-runners and con-goers. Many are also academic colleagues, and a couple of them are people I've worked with as council and executive members of a rather large (over 60k members) organization manned by over a hundred sections, all run by volunteers. I've been on lots of campus committees, and been involved in academic conference organization. And alongside my main specialties, I teach courses that revolve around understanding privilege, intersectionality, and constructions of race, gender, and the Other. Not surprisingly, I've kept up on those issues within the sf/f and gaming communities, especially. So this essay is premised in part on the following understanding, based on a lot of reading and discussion and personal experience:

The overlapping communities of sf/f fandom, comics/graphic novels fandom, and gamers is largely still a world where straight white guys are the visible majority, and normative behaviour has long tended to be defined by what they think is acceptable and/or excusable. For at least the past five years, more and more people have been standing up and saying, "Hey, we are here, too -- those norms? They really aren't acceptable and they make a lot of people feel excluded and unsafe." The responses have not all been friendly, but among them have been clear efforts to make the communities and their gatherings more inclusive and safer. The Committee of Loncon3 seems to have taken especial care to do this, until last weekend.

If you can't agree to this premise, and to considering what I have to say in view of my own background, you might as well stop reading. OK? But I hope you'll stick with me.

So... one of the things that has been nagging at me since the whole Jonathan Ross thing broke is this:

How is it that Neil Gaiman issued the invitation?

Here's the thing -- Gaiman is not on any of the committees. He's not a GoH (or not listed as one). So as far as I can tell, one of three things must have happened:


  1. without consulting the rest of the Committee, the Chairs took it upon themselves to ask Gaiman to approach Ross

  2. Ross mentioned in passing (or values thereof) to his friend, Neil Gaiman, that he'd be willing to do it, and Gaiman approached the Chairs and was given the go-ahead to invite Ross

  3. Gaiman thought it would be a cool thing for his friend and worked it out with the Chairs, either before or after asking Ross.



Let's remove the WHO, and focus on the WHAT here. There is a Committee. Even without a written code that says that the Chairs MUST consult on important decisions (and really, for a WorldCon, isn't hosting the Hugos an important decision??), a committee structure implies that there will be consultation. And frankly, my experience with working with volunteers who are doing a hell of a lot of work has shown me that having a part in important decisions is one of the reasons people volunteer in the first place.

Notice how there is a problem without it being Jonathan Ross. Or Neil Gaiman.

Next thing: a person not on the committee, but with status and power in the community, somehow is instrumental in extending an invitation to a personal friend who is in the community, but is not really of the community as a whole.

Do you see where this is going?

Now remember, the Committee has promised to try and address previous problems, primarily by increasing inclusivity and making the con a safe space. Let's also remember that those things depend on challenging normative white male privilege (let's assume that 'straight' and 'abled' are generally part of that, because this doesn't need to go all intersectional to be clear).

So first, we have a Big Name not involved with the organization involved in the decision-making.

I don't know the Chairs, so I don't know what would have happened had the Big Name also been a woman. But privilege being what it is, I think it somewhat less likely that a woman Big Name would have been consulted or had the same sort of access. More likely is that a woman Big Name's suggestion would have been considered and maybe reported to the rest of the Committee. In this case, too, there's Stardust.

Neil Gaiman isn't just a Big Name. He's a fucking Star. He's never struck me as someone who was pushy or demanding, but then he's in a place where he doesn't need to be. Because Stardust has powers over fandom.

Stardust is that thing that makes people attribute only good to those whose work they admire. It prevents the clay from showing through the gold on the idol's feet. Ross seems to have that sort of Stardust amongst comic fen. Stardust is what makes people not bother to think about whether a Big Name is appropriate for a particular event. It makes all the shiny shinier, and keeps people from focusing on the job at hand. Stardust also seems to have an effect on those who are covered in it. It's like privilege on a speedball -- totally ramped up to stupidly high, and yet so cool and mellow that it makes the Star's unchecked privilege even harder to recognize. People who are susceptible to Stardust are likely to forget that Stardust wasn't part of the criteria; in fact, it becomes the only important criterion.

The result in this case is that not only are there people from outside the organization helping to make an important decision, but (in part, I suspect, because of the Stardust), people within the organization who might normally expect, and be expected to take part in a decision that is fundamental to the event, are completely omitted from the conversation. And the funny thing about Stardust is that it seems to make people genuinely surprised when the sober people don't see the total and complete coolness of their actions. Under Stardust, there are no bad intentions, because the shiny is irresistible.

And then there's the person who is relatively immune to Stardust, or at least the second-hand type. Except in this case, there are a lot of them. They are the people who have been invested in changing the atmosphere at cons. They are the people who have been groped, or otherwise physically assaulted, or verbally assaulted, or bullied. They are the people who are used to others telling them how they should feel about the things they have experienced. They are, I dare say, people who love sf/f because it offers so many alternate worlds where individuals are valued for their contributions to the group. In those worlds, when Stardust exists, it is recognized for what it is, and it cannot take hold.

I am one of them. I am also someone who has watched Jonathan Ross's show on more than a few occasions. It's not usually my choice, but I have a family, and some of them really like the show. I've found moments funny, and some of the interviews are good. But there's never a show where he doesn't resort the sort of personal, sexualized humour that makes me uncomfortable. I think he's gotten a bit tamer, but I once went to see Dame Edna on stage. I find Ross's schtick a bit like that: people often seem to be laughing because they are either glad they aren't the target, or because they don't want to be thought of as not having a sense of humour. I think it's pretty easy to understand why a lot of people feel that it's the sort of humour that makes a place feel unsafe. It's the sort of humour that can make it very difficult to, "to ensure that the behaviour of any individual or group does not disturb other attendees or detract from the relaxed and comfortable atmosphere of the event." (LonCon code of conduct) There have been an awful lot of comments about how unfair it is to judge Ross on what he might do, and a few cracks about people predicting the future. Ironically, many of the same people have simultaneously argued that he wouldn't be like that at the Hugos. Logic isn't really a strong point there. While I am sure that some people may have made their judgements based on articles like the one in the Mirror, I think it's best to assume that a lot of people are making up their minds based on evidence and experience. Given the number of people who weren't laughing at some of his stuff at the British Comedy Awards (I watched most of that, too), especially the women, there's honestly no way to tell which Jonathan Ross would show up.

I know, it's just jokes. But it's not. It's really not. When you've been the victim of physical assault (sexual or not), verbal abuse (sexual or not), bullying, etc., there are things that you learn to watch out for. There cues, changes in atmosphere, when you know that a group of people who seem to be more or less equals is on the verge of turning into a pack of hyenas. Even those who have never been on the receiving end should recognize it: such moments are enshrined in film and literature alike. If you are the sort of person who reads fanfic, you're probably familiar with the words "trigger" and "triggery" in the sense of, "if you have gone through X sort of traumatic experience, you may not want to read this because it may bring back sense memories -- or memory memories." I mentioned above that there has been an ongoing conversation about cons and sexual harassment and assault. Victims of assault  often suffer from PTSD. Many don't, but here's a fun fact: people can experience sense memories whose cause they cannot quite identify, and which bring on inexplicable anxiety- or panic attacks or worse, up to full-on replays of the trauma and the emotional sensations they experienced  without being diagnosed with full-on PTSD. Nevertheless, the sensations and experiences are real. Just to make things more fun, being put into a similar physical or emotional situation can put people into a state of hyper-vigilance: a person's lizard brain senses a situation resembles one where there was danger in the past, and the body reacts by letting out masses of stress hormones and noticing everything. In fact, the body is screaming "I am not safe here!"

I'm going to go out on a limb big enough to hold an elf's cottage here and say that when people are talking about safe spaces, they generally mean spaces that are not only physically safe, but are friendly and unlikely to do that atmospheric shift where suddenly there's a pack of hyenas. Think again about your own experiences, and those in film, and literature... Think about the locker rooms, and the pubs, the senior common rooms, and any number of other venues where the mood has defaulted to "a bunch of blokes having a laugh -- piss off if you can't take it!" Will humour that relies on such attitudes help to create a break from the past and help make cons more friendly for a more heterogenous assortment of people? or will it simply reinforce a status quo that privileges 'geek-guy dominance' and the rest of us to feel like we've only been allowed a day pass that might be revoked at any minute?

I'm pretty sure from the reactions to Loncon3's announcement Saturday morning that an awful lot of people think the latter. I'd like to think that, if Mr Ross had been presented with something like this before he was chosen/approved/volunteered through a friend, he'd never have accepted. He withdrew his name rather graciously, and he seems not to have done anything to encourage his supporters to bash people at the con, even if he also hasn't come down on them. I would sort of like to see him on a panel discussing gender and sf/f, and how he, and perhaps Gaiman, see these issues -- and what they might change -- when they look at them not as fans or writers, but as fathers of daughters. Hell, I'd buy a round to have that talk.

So to sum up: Guidelines and procedures are helpful; Stardust is a harmful substance; there are good reasons for people to think Ross's humour would be out of place at the Hugos, and even if there had been no objections on that point, there's still the problem of a couple of Big Name middle-aged straight white males with no position in an organization being involved in a decision-making process that excluded people who are in the organization and who one might expect would be involved in choosing a host for the Hugos. In other words, a whole lot of privilege went unchecked, despite assurances that this con would be different. Comments suggesting that this happened because people are small-minded, or engaging in cyber-bullying, merely demonstrate why the con needs to follow through on its promises of safe space and non-discrimination.

ETA: html fixed, I think...

Comments

( 54 comments — Leave a comment )
x_los
4th Mar, 2014 00:20 (UTC)
Heya, I thought this post was really thoughtful, but just to let you know, I think you might have some coding errors at a few points?
a_d_medievalist
4th Mar, 2014 01:08 (UTC)
thanks! Stupid LJ's auto-formatting's attempts to 'fix' an incorrect tag...
x_los
4th Mar, 2014 02:26 (UTC)
Haven't we all faced that great evil? x_x
lollardfish
4th Mar, 2014 02:38 (UTC)
Yes, well said.

I wish I could arrange to introduce you to my friends (especially my fiddler) at the con, but they will be insane helping Seanan stay sane.

I hope you enjoy it and find it a safe space.
taldragon
4th Mar, 2014 10:40 (UTC)
if you're @lollardfish on Twitter, i saw your brief conversation with Mr Ross about witchhunts etc and thought you made very good points. even if he wasnt listening.
a_d_medievalist
4th Mar, 2014 11:07 (UTC)
He is -- Lollardfish, medievalist and RL friend, meet taldragon, enabler of my geekery and RL friend.
(no subject) - taldragon - 4th Mar, 2014 11:15 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lollardfish - 4th Mar, 2014 12:39 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - taldragon - 4th Mar, 2014 16:16 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lollardfish - 4th Mar, 2014 16:22 (UTC) - Expand
lollardfish
4th Mar, 2014 12:38 (UTC)
Thanks. I am. If there's another Lollardfish out there, I shall be quite surprised.

Public conversations are rarely about persuading the other side of anything, alas, but about trying to articulate one's points clearly for whoever might be persuadable.

I wrote, fwiw, http://www.thismess.net/2014/03/sexism-in-fandom-and-bullying-in-which.html on the conversation. It's a little disjointed and wandering, but heck, that's what blog essays are for.
(no subject) - taldragon - 4th Mar, 2014 12:52 (UTC) - Expand
a_d_medievalist
4th Mar, 2014 11:05 (UTC)
wait -- will you be there? If not, my tag will have ADM on it, so it's possible they may see me anyway.

Honestly, I am not all so much worried about myself. I'll tell you more if you're at the zoo and interested, but basically, a couple of the good results of the last couple of years of departmental hell have resulted in a Rx for clonazepam and being much better able to recognize and deal with inadvertent floods of adrenaline.

And reacting to sexist crap? including being groped by strangers who think a woman won't make a fuss in a crowd? People find out that I really don't mind making a fuss at all. :-D
lollardfish
4th Mar, 2014 12:41 (UTC)
No, I won't be there, but one of my closest friends and collaborators will be, but mostly to "staff" Seanan as she puts it. Hence busy. I wish I could go!
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 4th Mar, 2014 12:48 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - taldragon - 4th Mar, 2014 12:57 (UTC) - Expand
ahistoricality
4th Mar, 2014 02:45 (UTC)
Lovely use of "Stardust", too.
a_d_medievalist
4th Mar, 2014 11:07 (UTC)
Thank you. :-)
la_marquise_de_
4th Mar, 2014 11:43 (UTC)
I do know the chairs, as it happens (one of them is a dear friend) and, while I don't know details, I'm pretty sure that they weren't influenced by the fame factor over much. I also don't think that the gender of the big name was a factor here in the sense of how much influence.
I suspect we will never know exactly what happened, but, while I was personally uncomfortable with the announcement, I do believe that they acted for what they considered good reasons which were not to do with the fame of either Mr Ross or Mr Gaiman, seriously.
a_d_medievalist
4th Mar, 2014 12:47 (UTC)
That's nice to know. I used the word Stardust instead of fame deliberately, though, because I think there is a difference. Fame seems to me to be less personalised, while Stardust is a sort of glamour that affects different people differently. Fame, and celebrity, seem crass reasons for smart people to do things. But glamours... people don't even realise they are there. In that sense, I think privilege in general is a variant of Stardust, if you see what I mean.
la_marquise_de_
4th Mar, 2014 14:16 (UTC)
I do that's a good analogy, in fact.
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 4th Mar, 2014 14:25 (UTC) - Expand
daveon
4th Mar, 2014 21:26 (UTC)
Another thing I'd say is that while Neil Gaiman is a massive star now, a lot of the people in fandom who know him have known him for a VERY long time. I think I've known him to chat and hang around in bars with since about 1988 when the University SF group I was a member of almost killed him with a highly suspicious Chinese meal. Given the chair's involvement in fandom, they'd have known him since pre or very early Sandman days and I suspect you'll find they struggle to think of him as famous.

I don't know what happened exactly, but it isn't to do with fame here.

There's a lot of people on the inside who just aren't speaking to anybody, which is probably the right thing to do, so currently we're working off a very small sample of data on what happened.
lollardfish
4th Mar, 2014 12:54 (UTC)
I thought this was a pretty good piece criticizing the chairs for the way they made their decisions: http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/jonathan-ross-vs-the-hugos/

They had warning (from within the committee) and they didn't prep. To me, this speaks to the "laddish culture" which dominates British talk shows, sometimes crossing the line into abuse and harassment, but always flirting with that line. Ross is part of a much bigger system that either keeps women off TV or makes sure they are sexual objects, diminished, when they show up.
a_d_medievalist
4th Mar, 2014 13:58 (UTC)
I liked that piece. It's really tough when you know a lot of the people involved, as
la_marquise_de_ does. Heck, I know several of them myself, and I can't say I agree with all of them on every part of what's been said. I do believe that the Chairs thought they were doing a good thing, but have a very hard time understanding why they seem to have been unwilling throw open the question to discussion before announcing, especially if they were aware that it was not going to be a universally popular decision.

Discussion doesn't mean that the decision would have been different in the end -- who knows? it might have led to people being convinced that Ross would be a reasonable choice, or enough support to offer him the gig, but not enough to prevent a resignation. Or it might have resulted in withdrawing the offer before it was announced, and saving a lot of people, including Jonathan Ross and his family, a lot of distress.

ETA: you should read la_marquise_de_'s books. They are very good.

Edited at 2014-03-04 14:02 (UTC)
(no subject) - lollardfish - 4th Mar, 2014 14:24 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 4th Mar, 2014 14:28 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - daveon - 4th Mar, 2014 16:15 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 4th Mar, 2014 21:53 (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 4th Mar, 2014 23:15 (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 5th Mar, 2014 00:18 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - daveon - 5th Mar, 2014 01:44 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mme_hardy - 5th Mar, 2014 02:17 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 5th Mar, 2014 13:00 (UTC) - Expand
kjn
4th Mar, 2014 18:53 (UTC)
One possible factor here is the way questioning of a decision (or even an idea) can trigger entrenchment and taking a hard stance for the thing being questioned. I have no idea that this happened here to start with, but the way Farah said she argued for several days about the decision can certainly have had that effect.

This isn't a criticism of Farah, I've been guilty of triggering that behaviour myself too many times, and successfully questioning the basic "default" assumptions that others makes is fiendishly hard.

BTW, I'm impressed with this take on the affair. I must say that large parts of fandom are working hard to draw the right lessons here.
a_d_medievalist
4th Mar, 2014 22:05 (UTC)
Thanks. It helps that I'm more on the edges of fandom in a lot of ways. As daveon says below, we don't know what happened in the Concom, but yes, that sort of things can happen. But that's why there are committees -- so when this sort of thing happens, more neutral voices can suggest ways of getting back to the issues.
(no subject) - kjn - 5th Mar, 2014 09:03 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 5th Mar, 2014 13:09 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kjn - 5th Mar, 2014 14:33 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 5th Mar, 2014 15:50 (UTC) - Expand
shermarama
4th Mar, 2014 19:53 (UTC)
Aha. I've been reading about bits of this as it went along but not closely enough to really get the bigger picture; thanks for this.
kjn
6th Mar, 2014 14:32 (UTC)
Comments from Neil Gaiman on this. It seems his role was less than you initially thought.
a_d_medievalist
6th Mar, 2014 23:31 (UTC)
I got the info from Ross's tweet, quoted here. It seems to me that what happened was pretty much #1 above, unless I'm missing something.
kjn
7th Mar, 2014 17:53 (UTC)
Yeah, but it means there was less Stardust involved, and more general failure of thought.
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 8th Mar, 2014 09:21 (UTC) - Expand
dsmoen
8th Mar, 2014 10:36 (UTC)
FYI, I respond to Neil here:

http://deirdre.net/an-open-letter-to-neil-gaiman/

(which has a lot of Neil backstory)
a_d_medievalist
9th Mar, 2014 12:22 (UTC)
I saw that. I think it's useful. I also was glad that lollardfish's most recent post on the subject also pointed out the dynamics of the Ditko video.

I need to work on an update on how this is really boiling down to the same old white male privilege shit.
(no subject) - dsmoen - 9th Mar, 2014 20:58 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - 10th Mar, 2014 16:37 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dsmoen - 10th Mar, 2014 16:49 (UTC) - Expand
( 54 comments — Leave a comment )

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