The con chair asked Mary Robinette Kowal (who I quoted in one of those posts) to assist in repairing the programming grid. She’s run programming for more than one Nebula conference (and I believe a few other conventions) and seemed a good choice. She made a couple of short comments online right after agreeing, in which she said she had several volunteers to help, and would be too busy for the next several days to answer any questions from people not directly involved.
The con has subsequently published a new schedule, which looks much more diverse (in both topic and participation). I’ve seen several of the pros who had previously said they would withdraw from programming to make room for others since post that they had agreed to participate in at least one event in the new schedule.
I’m sure it was a mad scramble, and my hat’s off to the staff for realizing they needed to fix the problems, for being willing to accept help when it was offered, and to everyone who pitched in. It looks like a great program. I hope this was a learning experience for some people.
And I hope everyone who attends has a fabulous time.
But the best commentary I’ve seen on the topic of convention programming, the desire some fans have to only include popular/well-known/established writers, et cetera, has got to be the amusing short story Cora Buhlert posted a few days ago: Convention Programming in the Age of Necromancy – A Short Story. You should go read it there, because it’s hilarious, but I will include the opening to give you a taste:
At the daily program operations meeting of a science fiction convention that shall remain unnamed, the debate got rather heated.
“We absolutely need to hold the ‘Future of Military Science Fiction’ panel in Auditorium 3,” the head of programming, whom we’ll call Matt, said.
“And why?” his fellow volunteer, who shall henceforth be known as Lucy, asked, “Is military SF so important, that it needs one of the bigger rooms, while we shove the ‘Own Voices’ panel into a tiny cupboard?”
“No,” Matt said, “But Auditorium 3 has air conditioning.”
Lucy tapped her foot. “And? Are old white dude military SF fans more deserving of coolness and air than own voices creators and fans?”
Matt sighed. “No, but Heinlein’s reanimated corpse is coming to the panel. And trust me, he smells abominably. Oh yes, and he’s declared that he wants to attend the ‘Alternative Sexualities in Science Fiction’ panel, so we’d better put that in a room with AC, too.”
A personal note: The first time I was in charge of programming for a convention was an accident. I was on staff as the convention book editor (and I was also responsible for laying out the pocket program), and had previously been a panelist at the same convention. The person who was in charge of programming missed a couple of meetings as we were getting down to the wire, and she wasn’t responding to e-mails or phone calls from anyone. I was getting frantic because I didn’t have content for the program books. Many of us who had responded to the programming survey were worried because we hadn’t heard what panels (if any) we were on.
Turned out that the person in charge of programming had had a massive stroke and was in the hospital for an extended time. The hospital had not been able to contact her daughter (who was also on con staff, but she lived on the other side of the country, and her job at the con was strictly on-site. The daughter was on an extended business travel thing during the weeks all this was going down). The upshot was that at nearly the last minute to finish the program books, we found all this out, and suddenly I was in charge of programming. With the help of a couple of other people (and with a pile of email messages once we redirected the programming alias), I put together a programming grid in about three days. It wasn’t the best programming grid I ever saw, but we got it done.
And panelists were happy. We got a lot of compliments on the programming.
And that’s how I ended up in charge of programming for the following two years at that convention. We had a slightly less frantic process the next two years.
The woman who had the stroke did get out of the hospital and even attended the next couple of year’s convention in a wheelchair. Sadly, one of the things my successor had to put in his first grid as programming lead was a memorial service for her.
I wish I had a more upbeat ending to this tale.
The only conclusion I have is: running programming for a convention takes you in directions you never expected. It is an adventure, but remember that one of the definitions of “adventure story” is something really awful that happens to someone else.
I need to do a bit of a follow up to my previous post about the issues at Worldcon. I didn’t touch on everything that happened, and since the issue blew up, Mary Robinette Kowal, whose tweet from years ago on a related subject I quoted in that post, has agreed to help redo the programming. Kowal has been running the programming tracks at the annual Nebula conferences for a while, and she had posted a nice summary of their process for trying to put together a program that appeals to many parts of the community. So many of us are provisionally hopeful that the situation will be a bit better at the actual convention than they appeared just days ago.
I have also been reminded that sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between ignorance and actual malice. Now, I was thinking that most of the bigotry that seemed to be motivating the issues were likely unconscious—all of us are often unaware of just how many prejudices we have absorbed from society. Alis Franklin, in particular, has pointed out another explanation for much of the problem:
“This all feels very much like people used to running a small-town parochial con with an established member-base suddenly getting in a twist because they have to accommodate (gasp) outsiders.”
And she’s likely on to something. A lot of this does sound like the people in programming are speaking from their past experience running their local convention, where they believe they know their audience and what those attendees expect. But even if that is the case, I still suspect that their local crowd includes a lot more queers, people of color, and other folks who are interested in topics that their local con doesn’t recognize in programming—because as I said, we’re everywhere, and we’re all used to being excluded and dismissed; so much so that when we raise an issue and are shut down, we often just hold our tongues thereafter.
On the issue of the one pro whose submitted bio was edited to change all of eir pronouns to “he” and “him”, and the insistence for a few days that this was a bio taken from the web (when no one can find such a bio and they can’t provide a link), that gets into the conscious versus unconscious bias. Either the person who copied the bio was simple too ill-informed about non binary people and nontraditional pronouns, and simply assumed it was some kind of extremely consistent typo (which I think is a stretch), or they’re one of those people who balk at pronouns to the point of refusing to use any they don’t agree with and decided to change the bio and then claim it was a mistake if they were called on it.
I don’t know if the same staffer is the one who decided not to use another pro’s usual publication bio and photograph, and instead write a different bio using information that usually was not released publicly and use a photo taken from the pro’s private Facebook. In any case, it is difficult to construct an “honest mistake” excuse for that one. And if it is the same staffer, I think that is more than adequate proof that the changed pronouns on the other bio was an intentional aggression.
In several of the discussions online I’ve seen a lot of people not understanding what the problem was with requesting semi-formal wear for the Hugo ceremony. Foz Meadows summed it up better than I did:
”…the fashion at the Hugo Awards ceremonies tends to be a welcoming, eclectic mixture of the sublime, the weird and the comfortable. Some people wear ballgowns and tuxedos; some wear cosplay; others wear jeans and t-shirts. George R. R. Martin famously tends to show up in a trademark peaked cap and suspenders. Those who do dress up for the Hugos do so out of a love of fashion and pageantry, but while their efforts are always admired and appreciated, sharing that enthusiasm has never been a requisite of attending. At an event whose aesthetics are fundamentally opposed to the phrase ‘business casual’ and whose members are often uncomfortable in formalwear for reasons such as expense, gender-nonconformity, sizeism in the fashion industry and just plain old physical comfort, this change to tradition was not only seen as unexpected and unwelcome, but actively hostile.”
I also note that a few days ago Mike Glyer posted a link to a letter from decades back from E.E. “Doc” Smith (the author of the Lensmen books, among others) when the 1962 WorldCon asked for all the ladies attending the award ceremony to wear long formal gowns. Smith commented that his wife had not owned formal wear since entering retirement and thought it was unreasonable to expect people to go to such an expense.
Which is a nice segue to this: until the 34th WorldCon (MidAmericaCon I, 1976 in Kansas City, Missouri) the Hugo Awards were given out at the end of the convention banquet. The banquet consisted of eating (obviously) while the guests of honor gave speeches. Fans who couldn’t afford the extra expense of the banquet were allowed in (usually in a separate area such as a balcony) for the awards portion. The awards ceremony was separated from the banquet in 1976 for a couple of reasons, but one was to make it easier for everyone who wanted to attend to do so. The conventions had gotten so large that the fraction who wanted to see the award ceremony was too much for the banquet halls of typical convention hotels to accommodate, and there had always been the problem of people who couldn’t afford the banquet ticket. I wanted to close with that because I have seen a number of people arguing that the people who are feeling unwelcome because of this con’s actions are making unreasonable demands to change traditions of the conventions.
The traditions change over time for many reasons. It isn’t about change for the sake of change, it is change of the sake of practicality and realism. People have, in the past, believed that science fiction and fantasy was only created by straight white guys, and was only loved by other straight white guys. That has never been true, but the illusion was maintained through a variety of societal forces and some willful ignorance. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain that willful ignorance, and besides, ignorance is never a good look on anyone. It’s not about whether fandom is diverse, it is about to what lengths some people are willing to go to ignore, silence, or push out that diversity.
So how things came to a head: a professional writer who has been nominated for a Hugo this year was told they weren’t going to be on programming because “there is a kind of creator who appeals to Hugo nominators, but are totally unknown to convention attendees.” The email also managed to misgender the pro and… well things went downhill, after the pro and their spouse posted some of this information online. The programming people contacted the spouse, asked the spouse to convey their apology and expressed disappointment that they went public instead of handling this privately.
And that prompted many many other writers and creators to come out of the woodwork, posting their own many attempts to deal with similar issues (such as, “why did you discard the bio my publisher sent you, and pull information from my private Facebook account instead?” “What do you mean that people like me aren’t of interest to convention attendees?”)—indicating that a whole bunch of people had been trying to address this privately to no avail.
Only when it became public and dozens of authors who were on the programs wrote in to either withdraw, or at least suggest that other, newer, less well known writers could take their place on some panels, did the con chair issue a real apology (there had been a “we’re sorry if anyone’s offended” style non-apology the night before).
Because the thing is, the people who were being excluded weren’t just new writers to the field, it was overwhelmingly the queer creators, the non-white creators, and the women creators. And at one point, the programming person explicitly said, “Do you expect a WorldCon to be like WisCon?” WisCon being famously more feminist-friendly and queer-friendly than most other conventions.
Other people have written about this situation, and probably better than I, but there’s a part of this whole thing that just really presses my buttons, and it aligns with a theme I’ve written about many times on this blog: to wit, queer people, trans people, people of color, women, and people of many religions and cultures have been fans of sci-fi/fantasy (and created sci-fi/fantasy) for as long as it has existed. We aren’t new. We aren’t exotic. We aren’t fringe or band-wagoners. We’ve always been here, we just have seldom been allowed to be visible. As Mary Robinette Kowal observed at least four years ago:
“It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”
—Mary Robinette Kowal
Let’s go back to the explanation that was being given before the backlash forced them to scrap their programming plans and start over: “There is a kind of creator that appeals to the Hugo nominators who is not known by the convention attendees.”
I have at least three responses to that:
First, nominators are attendees. In order to nominate for the Hugo Awards and in order to vote for the winners, one must purchase a membership to the convention. And you know who else are attendees? The pros who are coming to the con that the con com doesn’t want to let on the program. Sure, not every attendee participated in the nomination process, and not every one of them nominated ever finalist, but some fraction of the attendees did. And the number of people who nominate is more than large enough to be a statistically significant sample of fans. So it is an entirely misleading and useless distinction to try to draw between attendees and nominators.
Second, this argument is a form of gaslighting. I’ve seen some people compare it to the old TrueFan arguments (and the more recent Real Fan claims from melancholy canines), and those are good comparisons, but I think a better model is the Moral Majority. I know I hark back to that particular group a lot, and I admit I know so much about them because they originated in the denomination in which I had been raised and they came to national prominence literally as I reached legal voting age, so my earliest election experiences included being told again and again that, because I disagreed with them, I was a member of the implied immoral minority.
This is the same kind of argument: “attendees” are implied as being the vast majority of fans, and these majority of fans don’t find “that certain kind of creator” interesting, unlike the “nominators.” The nominators are, by inference, supposed to be viewed as a fringe, extremist minority whose interests can’t possibly overlap with the implied majority. And just as the Moral Majority’s very name contained two lies (they were neither moral nor a majority), this notion that type of fans who are not interested in a “certain kind of creator” must consititute such an overwhelming majority that virtually no programming to appeals to anyone else is worth having.
Third, the majority/minority part isn’t the only form a gaslighting being attempted. Because here’s the thing: in most of the Hugo categories, it is not people who are nominated, but works of sci-fi/fantasy. The authors are referred to as nominees, but technically it is a specific novel, novella, novelette, short story, et cetera that is nominated. But that phrase, “a certain kind of creator who appeals to the nominators” puts the emphasis on the creator and the creator’s identity. In other words, they are arguing that the nominators really didn’t like the specific story, but have chosen the story to fulfill a quota or something.
In other words, the person who made this statement believes that the story nominated doesn’t really deserve to be nominated, and believes that the nominators don’t believe that either. It’s the same racist/homophobic/transphobic/misogynist arguments that the melancholy canines were making. A “certain kind of creator” is a dogwhistle. The nominators may want queer/trans/women/people of color, but “normal” people don’t. That’s what that statement says. And this is why I still fervently believe the person who said that should be fired from the con com.
Fourth, finally, they are arguing that attendees are only interested in seeing creators they already know and love. Completely ignoring the fact that most fans want to both see old favorites and to find new writers/stories/shows/what-have-you that might become favorites. One of my favorite parts of attending conventions are when I am exposed to new authors I’d never heard of before, and new works that I’d never seen. I’m always writing down names of authors and stories and ‘zines and so forth, and then going to look them up after the con.
Many of the authors who are currently in my personal list of favorites, are people who I learned about at a convention panel. Yes, once they become a favorite, I will look for their names in the programming grid and try to see some of their events, but I’m not just there to see the folks I already know.
The conventions where I ran programming were all smaller than WorldCon, but I have run programming at conventions. I know it is hard work. I know it can feel like thankless work. But one of my goals with that programming was to provide convention attendees opportunities to learn new things, to find new artists or writers and so forth that they didn’t previously know about; to introduce the work of many people to new audiences, while also giving fans a chance to see the people whose work they already liked.
If you don’t see that both of those goals should equally drive the programming of a sci fi or fantasy con, then you absolutely should not be working on programming. Go work for a commercial convention where the only point is to sell autographs. Do not volunteer for a World Science Fiction Con.
This year my husband was on convention staff. I didn’t have any obligations—no fan table to run, no panels that I was on (it’s been years since I was an attending pro at NorWesCon), and I wasn’t on staff. Read More…
But you don’t have to take my word for it Rob Salkowitz breaks it down nicely: GEEKGIRLCON DEALS WITH THE PAINS OF PROFESSIONALIZATION.
“As anyone who has ever worked for or with a nonprofit can tell you, the transition from volunteer to professional organization is not always smooth. People who contributed to the growth of the organization may feel resentment toward an outsider brought in above them, whose job is to make tough decisions and impose management discipline on previously informal systems. As fair-minded and inclusive as you might want to be in that role, eventually you will piss some people off just because you are the boss and they aren’t.
“It’s not unusual for longtime staffers to quit in these circumstances, sometimes in a huff. Sometimes, to really make a statement, they’ll resign in a group. If there’s something actionable, they can call a lawyer. And if they really want to leave a mark, they’ll take their dispute public via social media.
“But taking over the organization’s official email to blast out their manifesto after they’ve already quit? Nope. NOPE. In no conceivable universe is that ok.”
We now know that all of those who quit were white guys who posted their grievances anonymously (vague claims of being discriminated against by the new executive director who happens to be a woman of color) because they didn’t think they would be taken seriously. And that might have been true no matter what, but the way they did it really shows all we need to know. I’ve been either on staff or closely involved with enough people on staff for a lot of cons to recognize both the dynamic Salkowitz explains above and the circumstances that likely led to the mass resignation. By the way, it was only five guys, out of a staff of a bit over 50, so while it seems like a lot, it certainly isn’t most of the staff, as their post clearly tried to imply.
I could go into more detail about why hijacking the con membership’s list was wrong, how it is triangulation and so forth. But the real reason is this: when I have been in situations where I felt I was the aggrieved party and have been tempted to do such things, I knew that the suggestion was coming from the little devil on one shoulder, and not the little angel on the other. (Although in my imagination it’s the evil fairy tale queen on one shoulder, and a happy glitter-covered fairy on the other).
We come up with rationales for vindictive, angry, destructive behavior all the time. It’s not fair, we say. Or they started it! Or it’s just the internet! Or I was joking! Or you took it wrong! Et cetera and ad nauseum.
Maybe you are right. Maybe you have suffered a great injustice. But here’s the thing: if you win by fighting dirty, that isn’t justice. The ends don’t justify the means. There is a big difference between righteous indignation and vengeful lashing out. Just as there is a difference between cruelty and kindness. How we take a victory or defeat matters just as much as the actual outcome.
Situations are messy and there’s always more than two sides to every story. But every side isn’t equally true, or equally valid, or equally relevant. And sometimes you can tell which side has the fewest facts in their favor by their tactics. And I, at least, can spot a sore loser from miles away. Even when they’re hiding behind anonymity, misleading verbiage, and the furtive fallacy.
There are not two of you. There isn’t literally a devil/evil queen on one shoulder and an angel/good fairy on the other. There’s just you. A noble and just person doesn’t have to resort to dirty tactics. If you’re fighting dirty, even if for a just cause, then you’re not the hero.
S0, my hubby and I are attending our first GeekGirlCon, which is held at the Washington State Convention Center. It’s a sci fi con, dedicated to welcoming and celebrating girls, women, young women in geek/sci fi/fantasy culture.
And it’s fun!
First impression while we were in line to get our badges was that the crowd is much more like a pony con than a traditional sf/f convention. Fewer guys. A lot more kids. Not that there aren’t a lot of guys of all ages, here, but we’re in the minority. Which is the point, and not at all a bad thing.
There’s a Do It Yourself Science area that’s set up for kids to sit down and do science projects. Every time I’ve walked by today, it’s been pretty full. I first learned about it a couple months back when the GeekGirlCon mailing list sent out a link for people to donate to pay for the supplies and such in the area. You know I jumped on that. We need more science-literate people in future generations!
I’m writing this blog post in Introvert Alley, which is a room the set up for people to have a quiet, dark place to retreat to if you need it. It’s nice. I can still hear the con outside, but we’re clearly in another space. I had to adjust the brightness of my iPad screen several times before it felt right in here. Now I wish every con had someplace like this. When I feel the need for this sort of thing at some cons, I just head back to our hotel room. But since this place is about a fifteen minute drive from our house, and downtown hotels are never cheap, we don’t have that option.
The Exhibitor Hall (or dealer’s den) is huge. We did one long methodical sweep through it, only stopping at a couple of booths. I was pulled to one by a 1954 Hermes 3000 typewriter. The author whose table it was at, Eva L Elasigue, had typed some poetry on it. We geeked out about manual typewriters a bit, then I asked her about her book. She said it was mythic space opera, “think, Les Mis meets Cowboy Bebop.” No, I’m one of those queer boys who hates Les Mis. I know, sorry, it’s just too grim for me. But I understand the pathos and appeal it has for a lot of people. And I absolutely love Cowboy Bebop. And Cowboy Bebop’s noir-ish vibe certainly could go well with a Les Mis sensibility. So, as I told her, based on the pitch alone I had to buy the book: Bones of Starlight: Fire On All Sides.
We hadn’t walked far from her table when we hit one of those traffic jams that happen in crowed dealer’s rooms, so I opened the book, and read a few sentences. Yeah, I could totally hear a Cowboy Bebop soundtrack playing as I read. I got through the rest of the first page in starts and stops every time we had to wait while walking. I like it already and have high hopes for the rest of the book.
I’m seen several people I know, but other than Joi, it’s all been from a distance through the crowd, so haven’t talked to any of them, yet.
Michael reminded me that he hadn’t eaten before we left, so we tried to walk to a restaurant 600 feet away, but I managed to get turned around and go the wrong direction for at least that far before I figured out where we were. We’d exited the convention center from a side I’ve never been on before, and thanks to some construction projects happening outside (I think for the new light rail station), I couldn’t see any landmarks I recognized until we’d gone a block and a half the wrong way. We got to the place eventually, and the way we both inhaled our meals, clearly he wasn’t the only one who needed to eat.
I had trouble finding the room the next panel I wanted to see was in. By the time we did, the room was full with a guard at the door telling people the room was full. But the next panel I want to see is there, so I now know where it is and I can go get there early. I hope.
When I do check twitter, I’m trying to just skim over all the deplorable stuff. I much prefer the bright future I see on display here to the rationalization and rape apologetics that the Republicans are trying to pass off as political discourse this week.
I should pause here, in case you don’t know what the Locus Awards are. Locus (The Magazine of The Science Fiction & Fantasy Field) was founded back in 1968 as a fan produced news magazine and to promote a WorldCon bid. The ‘zine has continued for decades since, printing news about fannish and pro activities in the SF/F realm. In 1971 Charles N. Brown, the founding editor, decided to have the readership nominate and vote on deserving works in the field, in order to help the Hugo awards. Think of it as an organized recommendation list. Readers and contributors to the zine recommended books and stories and editors and so forth, and voted on them. The Locus awards has different categories than the Hugos, and since you don’t have to have a membership at WorldCon to participate, in theory the awards may draw on a more diverse crowd.
What I like about them is that they have multiple novel categories. While the Hugos just have Best Novel of the Year, the Locus Awards separate Science Fiction novels from Fantasy, and also have a separate category for Young Adult novels and first novels. Anyway, the recommendation list that is generated in the process alone is a wonderful resource for finding good things you would have otherwise not heard of.
Even though I have been reading the list of winners every year for a long time, it somehow never occurred to me that there was an award banquet, and even more important on a personal level, I didn’t know that the banquet has, at least for the last several years, been happening right here in Seattle. I found out because a woman mentioned it at a panel at NorWesCon, and handed out fliers.
The event is like a miniature sci fi con. There are a couple of Readings by pros the night before the banquet, followed by a party, then on Saturday morning there are a couple of panel discussions. There is an autograph session and a bookseller is there ready to sell you books by the authors who are signing, and there is the banquet. In addition to the awards, there’s several silly activities that have grown up as traditions around the event, such as a Hawaiian shirt contest (Charles Brown, Locus’ founding editor, was famous for his fondness of loud Hawaiian shirts).
We both have been having worse than usual hay fever lately, so neither of us have been sleeping well, and we both wound up taking naps Friday afternoon after work that lasted late enough that we skipped the Friday evening activities. Saturday, we made it to the event and had a great time.
First, no one told me that there would be free books. Apparently the publishers of books that make the shortlist often send boxes of the books to the event. So those (and other books) are set out in little piles on each banquet table. And a bunch more are on a give-away table in the back. We brought home free books whose retail prices definitely exceeded the cost of tickets to the event!
It was also just a fun event. There were a lot of familiar faces there (since I’ve been attending Northwest sci fi conventions for nearly three decades), but it was a smaller crowd, and a much higher percentage of the attendees were pros.
The event also overlaps with the first week of the Clarion West six-week summer writing workshop, and we wound up sharing our table with three of the students from the workshop. They were really nice, and were a diverse group: one guy was from Chicago, a woman was from Wales, and another guy was from India.
I knew our new acquaintances were “my kinda folks” when the young woman from Wales picked up one of the books in the free pile and said, “I should not pick up a new book that is this thick when I have no free time for the next several weeks” then, a second later she gasped and said excitedly, “It has a map!” and the other two immediately stopped their banter to add comments about how books with maps are temptations one can never resist.
I had been about to make a similar observation. Having written about it before: “Some of my favorite books have maps…”.
Whenever I go to a con, I come back feeling excited in new ways about my writing. Some of it is from hearing authors at panels talk about their own troubles and triumphs writing. Some of it is from learning new things or finding new stories that inspire me. Some of it is because I almost always wind up sitting in a corner somewhere with my laptop or iPad or a paper journal working on one of my stories in progress, and being out of my usual routine makes me look at the plotholes and so forth differently.
But a big part of it is simply the joy that comes from meeting other people who love the same kinds of books I do. Shared joy multiples. Chatting with another person who loves something you love, explaining to each other which bits made you squee and so on, increases that wellspring of delight inside you.
That remembered elation can help carry you over the rough spots in your next round of revision.
There once was a fan artist whose schtick at conventions was to viciously attack and destroy plushies. He had a particular hatred for plush toys based on animated characters from programs that he disliked: Smurfs, for example. People would intentionally bring such plushies to his table in dealer dens or artist alleys and watch him scream and shout and foam at the mouth (not always figuratively)… and tear the thing to shreds.
A lot of people thought this was funny. Not just a teeny bit funny, but funniest thing ever in the history of funny things.
The first time I saw it, I was horrified. I was on the other side of the room, looking at some artwork in an artist’s portfolio, when I heard an angry shout. I barely got turned around to see what was happening before this man was standing up, screaming angry insults at what looked like a cowering young man. He lunged across the table, grabbed something (I couldn’t tell if it was a teddy bear, or what), screamed more angry insults punctuated with the phrase “Die! Die! Die!” and proceeded to shred the thing.
This was in the late 1990s, so I didn’t have a cell phone. If I had, I would have been calling 911. I thought this stranger had literally lost his mind. I thought someone was being assaulted.
And half the room (it was a dealer’s den at a smallish/medium-sized convention, so maybe 35-40 dealer’s tables, maybe a couple hundred people in the room) started laughing. “What the heck?” I said aloud. A fan I didn’t know standing next to me said, “Oh, that’s just so-and-so killing another Smurf.”
It was his schtick or signature move. Something he was known for. Everyone knew it was just an act. Several people assured me that he was really quite a sweet guy. He only did it when he knew the person wanted the plushie destroyed. It was all in good fun.
Unless, of course, you weren’t in on the joke. Like me. My heart was pounding like a trip hammer during the display. I was trying to figure out how to get over there and pull the person whose toy was being attacked out of danger. I was wondering why the hell no one else was doing anything. And I bet I wasn’t the only person in the room who didn’t know about this guy and his act.
Over the next few years I had other interactions with the same guy. Online he tended to be a curmudgeon and a crank. If he knew who you were and considered you an established person in fandom, and you happened to disagree with him, his arguments would be snarky, but he’d concede that you had the right to an opinion. If you weren’t in that category, he was a full-fledged asshole.
In person at conventions where I was staff, he behaved in a civil if gruff manner in our exchanges as long as things were going his way. He groused and grumbled and sometimes threatened if things weren’t. When I wasn’t staff, or when I wasn’t clearly identified as such, how polite he acted depended on whether there was an audience, and how big. If the dealer’s den was relatively quiet and he was browsing at my table or the table next to mine, he was soft spoken and almost friendly. If there was a crowd around, he would find reasons to declaim opinions, usually negative opinions, loudly and with colorful language.
I had a very hard time believing that he really was a sweetheart. Yes, some of his behavior was an act. The destroying plushies thing, once you had witnessed it a few times, had a rhythm and repeated sequence of phrases. He was performing. It was part of his brand. Exactly how behaving like a deranged ax murderer toward harmless toys was a brand worth perpetuating I wasn’t very clear about, but that’s what it was.
Performance or not, that doesn’t mean that everyone who witnesses the performance enjoys the experience. Particularly, like me the first time, if you aren’t in on the joke. Even once I was in on the joke, it was still upsetting. I’m a collector, and one of the things I collect is plushies. Anyone who has been to our house has seen that we have otters and tigers and teddy bears and other cute plush animals lined up on top of the bookcases and stashed in other locations. Some of those plushies have a lot of sentimental value. There’s a particular floppy tiger plush that was one late husband’s, for instance. There is a particular mouse in a Christmas scarf that my late husband gave me one Christmas that I have an incredibly strong emotional attachment to. Every time I have witnessed the performance of the destroy the plushie routine at a convention, part of me has wondered how does he know that the person carrying that thing past his table was in on the joke and wanted it to happen?
Call me a softy, but thinking of that happening to an unsuspecting person’s possession by mistake is almost as upsetting as seeing the act without warning was the first time.
If you’ve been involved in any fandom for any significant length of time, you’ve met or seen someone like kill-the-plushies guy. He or she has a schtick, whether it be:
- partially disrobing in public spaces, declaiming loudly about body positivity, and daring people to be offended;
- or making sexual gestures and comments at anyone and everyone while commenting to the significant other of said person about how lucky they are to have “that”;
- or pontificating loudly about people who don’t have respect for the classics while denigrating some new popular thing;
- or spinning long humorous tales about how clueless some people are;
- or being exaggeratedly offended at something and going on long, grandiloquent rants;
…and so forth.
I’ve been thinking about that guy (and many other fans and pros I’ve known who have a reputation that their badass or angry or asshole behavior is just a schtick or a joke they do), while reading reactions and continued attempts at defending the things that happened to Mike Oshiro at ConQuesT.
Many of the defenders are using variations of the “it’s just a joke” excuse, of course. But there are other similar elements, as well. The fellow panelist who briefly defended himself (then deleted his comments) on the original post by saying, “We’ve been on panels together at conventions before” and “I thought we were friends” is essentially saying, “You should have known it was just an act. I’m really a sweetheart.”
But I think that the notion that he or she is really a sweetheart once you get to know him was also part of the brand. It is just as much a performance as the outrageous behavior. The outrageous behavior is only accepted by some of the audience because they know it’s only an act. They are making a choice when to treat someone with respect, and when to be a badass.
And the fact that often their attempt at apology is to simply say, “But I didn’t mean it that way. I thought you were in on the joke” is all the proof you need that the “sweetheart” part of the act is the least accurate representation of their true nature.
File770 has an extensive post, with links to several other comments and additional information, and a very long comment thread (which has remained mostly civil): Mark Oshiro Says ConQuesT Didn’t Act On His Harassment Complaints.
I’m more than a bit disappointed in how many people are still jumping to the defense of a couple of the harassers with re-treads of the “can’t you take a joke”/“But everyone knows she didn’t mean anything by it.” One version of that which has surfaced a few times in regards to the person who has a history of taking her pants off at panels is, “she does that all the time; I’m not offended by it; Therefore it isn’t offensive and there’s something wrong with you if you think there is.”
This is an old defense that has been used to excuse sexual harassment and sexual assault for decades. A woman complains that she was made uncomfortable by someone who kept commenting on some part of her anatomy, kept crowding in on her, et cetera, and people say, “Oh, so-and-so does that all the time, but he’s harmless!” By which, presumably they mean so far as they know he has never murdered anyone, or raped anyone at knifepoint. This completely ignores the fact that the leering, crowding, groping, or whatever that he does do makes the person feel very uncomfortable, unsafe, and completely obliterates any enjoyment she gets out of the activity/convention/party/panel whatever.
Similarly, the pants situation this time isn’t just about whether it is offensive for a woman to stand around wearing a pair of mens boxers as outerwear, it’s whether after dropping her pants bumping into and continuously rubbing up against another panelist who has previously indicated he isn’t comfortable with that behavior is an acceptable way to behave. Never mind whether it is conducive to a serious discussion about tolerance for a panelist to do that on stage at the panel.
To switch sides for a moment: I’ve been on the other side of the “is it offensive” debate. There are still people (they got quoted in some of the news stories after the last Hugos, for instance), who angrily insist that even including a platonic gay relationship in a story/movie/TV series is deeply offensive to them. Heck, there were calls for boycotts because a black actor was cast as a stormtrooper in the new Star Wars movie, not long after the calls for a boycott of one of the official Star Wars tie-in novels because it included a gay character. I totally understand that someone merely saying that something is offensive is not justification for utterly banning that something. For those people, seeing me simply giving my husband a quick peck on the lips before heading into a panel room completely squicks them out. And I refuse to stop being who I am just because some bigots think they have a right to live in a diversity-free world.
So, I understand that the woman who takes her pants off may be trying to make a statement about body positivity, and about women being in control of their own bodies and having a say in how they dress. I understand that I don’t have a right to veto her choices about herself. But if I happen to be on the panel with her, my lack of a veto over how she dresses doesn’t mean that I have no right to be upset if she rubs up against me, leers at me, and otherwise tries to turn me into a prop for her performative critique of societal norms. My lack of a veto over her sexuality or identity doesn’t mean I have to participate at that level.
Related to all of this, our local furry convention seems to have finally self-destructed: What really killed RF2016 was RF2011 to RF2015. Yes, I said finally. I know it isn’t nice to pile on when someone is already down, but there were very clear warning signs early (as the person, a recently resigned conchair, who wrote that post-mortem alludes to) that the concom had serious problems. The ones mentioned in the post are bad, but they were the tip of the iceberg from my experiences: as an attendee, as a dealer, as a panelist, as someone who offered to help on staff, and as someone who filed multiple reports of times the convention didn’t adhere to their own policies. The thing that actually brought them down was failing to deal with misbehaving attendees, but that was only a symptom of a deeper problem—just the most obviously expensive symptom.
These things don’t have to kill conventions, though.
Last summer, after the incident of the drunken writer contacting the local police to file a false report that one of the WorldCon guests of honor (with whom he had a political disagreement) was a dangerous person who might commit violent acts at the con, Lydy Nickerson posted a lengthy post about her own experiences as a staff member dealing with problems at conventions over the years: Harassment: What do we do? It’s really well done. She lays out a lot of real scenarios and explains the options and how to take some mitigating circumstances into account and so on. It is really worth a read.
At least one specific post over the weekend warrants some commentary: Mark Does Stuff – TRIGGER WARNING: For extended, detailed… | Facebook. Mark Oshiro was invited as a Guest of Honor to ConQuesT, where he and his partner were sexually and racially harassed both on and off panels, treated very strangely by con staff (including the chair) at Opening Ceremonies and the GoH dinner, and so on. It is not a pleasant story to read, and even more infuriating to see how the con staff many times assured him things would be taken care of, then months later told that no action would be taken on any of his complaints.
He concludes the tale with this explanation for why he’s going public:
Harassment is unfortunately a part of my experience at SF/F conventions. Not at all of them, but at most of them, something happens to me. I’m an outspoken queer Latinx, and it’s inevitable. However, since ConQuesT, every con staff that I’ve had to make a report to has dealt with my report quickly and fairly. At ConFusion this year, the concom dealt with my incident report in two hours. Meaning they spoke to the person and that person apologized to my face within two hours. At that point, it almost seemed comical that over half a year had passed, and both ConQuesT and Kristina Hiner did nothing at all.
That’s why I’m talking. I did what I was supposed to. I kept quiet, I trusted the system in place, and it completely failed me. I will not be attending ConQuesT this year or for the foreseeable future. (I’m going to WisCon for the first time instead!) I don’t feel safe there, and ultimately, that’s why this bothers me so much. There are people who are part of that community who were actively hostile to me, and when I reported them, the message was sent loud and clear:
We don’t care about you. At all.
It left me wondering why a convention would invite someone to be a guest of honor, then treat them this way. I can come up with a number of explanations, but even the most benign ones still leave no excuse for not dealing with the harassment incidents.
A certain number of responses (both at Mark’s original post and on various blogs reacting to it) trot out the usual blame the victim/blame no one defenses. 1) Surely if Mark had simply politely asked the harassers to stop everything could have been avoided, and 2) Con staff can’t prevent bad behavior and certainly can’t be expected to anticipate everything that might go wrong.
The first defense, besides ignoring Mark’s account that he did ask and otherwise signal his discomfort multiple times, completely overlooks the fact that speaking up for yourself, no matter how politely, often leads to even worse consequences than the original harassment. When folks are confronted about their offensive behavior, they frequently deny and escalate. One example happened in the comments of Mark’s posting (which was subsequently deleted, but not before someone took a screencap of it).
The second defense contains truth, but is also very misleading. Three of the problem people named in the post have been known to say and do those (or substantially similar) things at previous conventions. The panelist who took her pants off and kept bumping up against Mark and making weird faces even said, at the time, that she had gotten in trouble for doing that sort of thing on panels at that very convention previously! Con staff can’t predict the future, but surely they can remember problems from previous years?
I get it. I’ve worked on convention staff many times. My jobs have ranged from very low level gopher to being in charge of programming and vice-chair. I understand that the con staff is all-volunteer, always overworked, always understaffed, always juggling lots of things, and frequently doing all of this on too little sleep and without enough time. I understand that no one has time to vet every panelist. I get all of that.
And I’ve been on the other side. I’ve said and done things I realized later that I shouldn’t have. I’ve had to go apologize to people. I’ve been in situations where I should have apologized but wasn’t able to for various reasons. And sometimes when I’ve been confronted about something I said and did, instead of taking the complaint to heart, I’ve denied and gotten defensive—aggressively defensive. So, I understand and empathize with those people, too.
Some folks are defending the other panelists by trying to say it was all in good fun, or it wasn’t meant that way (whatever that means). You know, that’s exactly what bullies say when they get called out. “I was just joking around. I didn’t mean anything by it.” You can hurt people without intending to. You can make people uncomfortable without intending to. Your intent doesn’t change how the person felt while you were behaving that way. Just as saying you didn’t mean to break something doesn’t magically repair the broken thing.
If you sincerely didn’t realize what you were doing was making someone feel uncomfortable or unwanted or despised, it is all right to mention that in your apology. But the rest of the apology has to be sincere. “I didn’t realize how my actions affected you at the time. Now that I understand, I deeply regret what I said and did. It was wrong to put you in that position. I will try not to do that to you or anyone else ever again.” Something like that is a real apology and shows that you value the other person.
While the “Can’t you take a joke?” sort of reactions just confirms your utter disregard for anyone other than yourself.