Zero Tolerance Policy

Just a few thoughts here about the current campaign to end sexual harassment at social events associated with the Geek Community–be they fan conventions, gatherings of the atheist/Skeptical community, or other events in which the male and female of Homo nerdiens may tend to gather.

Genevieve Valentine made a fairly passionate post today about the recent verdict of the Readercon board in a harassment case. A man accused of harassment was publicly reprimanded and suspended from participation in the convention for two years–which given the fact that the convention is annual is a pretty strong slap on the wrist.

Ms. Valentine is disappointed in this verdict. Taken in isolation it might seem adequate, but the same convention had made a ruling in a case two years ago which was much more stringent. In that case, a man accused of sexual harassment was banned from the convention for life. Given that the punishment in this case was less harsh than in the previous case, it appears on the surface that the complaint was considered less valid for some reason. The board declined to make its deliberations public in either case, so it is impossible to know what evidence they considered in coming to their decision.

It is easy to imagine that the real difference in the current instance was not the woman’s testimony or the nature of the offense, but the nature of the accused. The previous offender was a “nobody”, apparently, a person with few ties and little influence in the larger community–perhaps the stereotypical “dangerous loner”. By contrast, the person accused in this case has a column for Tor.com, was the chair of the 2009 Hugo committee, and has made at least a small contribution to SF scholarship in his non-fiction writings. But as in the case of more serious gender-based crimes, the status of the man should have no bearing on matters of justice.

A rape is not less “rape-y” if it is committed by a man who is wealthy, well-educated and comes from a prominent family. Harassment is not less “harass-y” if the person who committed it once chaired a Worldcon committee.

So. What do I have to contribute on this subject? Just a few thoughts. I’m not here to invalidate anyone’s feelings or tell them what opinions to hold on this case or on the subject of harassment of general. I’m just going to tell you what MY views are.

1. Sexual harassment is bad. It is a serious issue for both men and women and it is a particularly serious issue in the communities that I tend to inhabit–science fiction and comics fandom, gaming, humanism, and sciences.

Harassment takes many forms and it is not confined to one gender or sexual orientation. Predatory attempts to achieve sexual contact are not pleasant; neither are verbal assaults and attempts to humiliate, which are liberally rained down upon people of all gender assignments and sexual orientations. The combination of social ineptitude, brutal entitlement and lack of empathy in our communities is not acceptable. We must do something about it, and well-stated and well-enforced policies against harassment of any kind are part of the solution–not the problem.

2. When confronted with harassment or any other form of discrimination, abandoning the field is rarely the answer. Harassers and predators do not own the whole damn world, and screw them anyway. Retreating from battle, in society as in war, is not victory and it is not a punishment of your foes: it is surrender. And why should you surrender if you are not in the wrong?

Ms. Valentine has expressed the thought that she may never return to Readercon. I understand her impulse to write off the convention…but I hope she will not. If good people who believe in equality and decent behavior abandon Readercon and other conventions, we will be yielding the ground that has been gained and achieving nothing positive. Whatever thin satisfaction we get from making it clear that the authorities have displeased us by failing to punish someone enough, will be trumped by giving the uncivilized Morlocks of the world the real triumph of their agenda: to make other human beings either serve their sexual needs or be completely absent/invisible.

Leaving any community is the last resort, and doing so is a punishment that can be inflicted only on good people…never on bad people. I personally would hate to see Genevieve Valentine and other women stop attending Readercon, for example, because I would miss out. I have never attended the convention, but I’ve always hoped to. I would hate to think that other female creators, publishers and readers would be avoiding the convention in the future, especially when their continuing investment in this convention and other public gatherings is the only hope we really have of living in a better world–one in which harassment is not the silently assented norm.

3. When it comes to this one convention and its board…maybe we really don’t have all the evidence. I agree that the verdict of the board may be difficult to understand in this case, without being made privy to the details of their internal deliberations. On the other hand, their verdict in the other case, while more welcome, really seems to have been equally opaque. We don’t know the details of their internal deliberations about the previous case, either.

Given this opacity, who knows? It may have been that when they investigated the previous complaint, they uncovered information about the previous offender which is not publicly known, but very disturbing, and seemed more than ample justification for a lifetime ban. We’re assuming here that the only basis for a decision and/or reaction in both cases was a single complaint by a single woman, and that no other information was available–but what if this assumption is mistaken?

Just to put forward a hypothetical scenario: I’ve read about some public sexual “manifestos” made by the previous offender, and we know that the police became involved. What if the cops disclosed details of the previous offender’s criminal record or psychiatric assessment to the con committee, and gave them an unofficial but sincere warning about his likelihood of attacking someone? Worse still, what if they had testimony from another person who was harassed or assaulted by this man and could not name all the accusers, because they requested anonymity? Such information could not be made public for both legal and moral reasons.

Authorities both within and outside our communities do not always passively collaborate with rape culture. Sometimes our convention committees and police are trying to take steps to help people protect their communities. When they do, they are still obligated to act within the boundaries of personal privacy and legal statutes that protect the accused.

4. It isn’t a perfect world…yet. But I hope we can agree that things are getting better. The very fact that we are talking about this, fighting about it, hashing it out and re-organizing our communities and their values is a positive thing. The fact that the boulder sometimes rolls back a few inches is not a reason to give up pushing it up that hill.

The fact that the accused in this case has even minor standing in the community and has been publicly rebuked and suspended by the Readercon board, despite his affiliation with WorldCon and his status as a writer and an affiliate member of SFWA…is not a bad thing at all. Let’s face it: in our imperfect world, it is still much easier to ban and censure nobodies and spooky/psycho loners who have no friends, no connections, and no career credits. There is no game of “He Said/She Said” in a case where He has nothing to say that anyone wants to hear, and She does…or vice versa.

It takes significantly more courage and energy for a convention to take any executive action at all against someone who does have some standing in the community, and thus invite a showdown with his contacts and supporters. We have witnessed these showdowns recently in the Skeptical community, for example, and they have been ugly as hell.

So while we can certainly express displeasure if we feel that the con hasn’t acted strongly enough in this case, I think it would be a step backward to try and punish one of the few cons that has even attempted to institute a zero tolerance harassment policy, much less enforce one.

Honestly, I’m an outsider in this situation and I don’t know what happened or why Readercon made the decision they did. All I can see as an outsider is that Readercon, at the very least, has established itself as a convention where harassment complaints are heard respectfully and acted upon decisively.

This is a good thing. It may even be a good thing that the convention is capable of taking more than one action or type of action in response to a complaint. The willingness to judge each case individually and to revise policies that are inadequate is not necessarily a sign of weakness in the community: both the accuser and the accused must have rights in any system, for it to be called just or fair.

The social and physical safety of all those who attend a public gathering is at stake here, and while we don’t want our gatherings to be hunting grounds for predators and bullies–we also don’t want them to become witch hunts and inquisitions.

UPDATE: In the wake of great public protest and a petition signed by former, current and aspiring attendees of Readercon, the Readercon Board responsible for the decision in the Valentine-Walling case have resigned. The Con Committee have reversed the board’s decision, as it violated Readercon’s established Zero Tolerance policy, and passed down the verdict which was actually required by the terms of that policy. Walling has been banned from all participation in Readercon for life, and a full and unreserved apology has been offered to those who reported the harassment, all those affected by the incident, etc.. They’ve also offered refunds to anyone who no longer wishes to attend Readercon 24.

You can read the whole apology and the plans for the future here. I applaud Readercon’s commitment to public safety. It can’t have been easy to deal with these resignations, nor to reverse a verdict from the board. We can only that this public gesture should go a long way to repair the convention’s reputation, and restore its tattered credentials as a con which puts the comfort and dignity of its attendees first.

About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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