Let’s open with a link, shall we?
So. The link above is to a really well done roundup of all the debate surrounding a case of harassment at Readercon 23, held from July 12-15 in Burlington, Massachusetts. I’m not going to rehash it in any depth. In particular, I’m not going to directly name names of the people involved. They’re readily available. The source material in that post above has them. You can find them. But I don’t particularly want to mention the perpetrator’s name and I can’t imagine the victim needs her name brought up again. I’ll go into some basic explanation after the break, but really you should go up to that link and get lots of detail and perspective.
In short, a man — let’s call him Bob — was involved with Readercon. He was on panels. Indeed, he is well known and well regarded in Fandom. He has been involved in Worldcon and he is involved with various current Worldcon bids. He is one of those Secret Masters of Fandom that people are referring to when they mention SMOFs.
Said man… rather dramatically and openly pursued and harassed a woman — let’s call her Carol — who was attending Readercon as a guest. She is a known author and critic and is also well regarded in Fandom. Bob’s harassment was reported, and corroborated by many witnesses. Among other things, he was attempting to use ‘pick up artist’ techniques on the woman.
As a side note? I actually own and have read one of those books on being a pick-up artist. Not to pick up women — I bought it after Weds and I were engaged and I had and have no interest in ‘picking up women’ like one picks up groceries, not that I think I could if I wanted. No, I got it because I used to write for In Nomine, which had a kind of demon called an Impudite, who used charm and deceit to ingratiate himself and get things from humans, including suckling their very souls for energy… and ‘pick up artist’ techniques are the best possible way to add verisimilitude to a soul-sucking incubus con artist. Needless to say? Human beings who act like that don’t impress me. But I digress.
Now, here’s one thing that’s important to point out. The harassment is not in dispute. Readercon acknowledges it. Bob acknowledges it. There is a plethora of evidence supporting it. And there are credible reports that this is a pattern of behavior. This is not about whether or not it happened. It is also not about whether or not harassment is a bad thing, or about pick up artists, or anything like that. Please bear that in mind when you consider commenting.
What this is about is Readercon’s response… and how it may have done vastly more damage to everyone involved — Carol, Bob, and Readercon itself.
You see, Readercon has a policy — a very well publicized policy, which has been a source of great pride for them — that harassment is entirely unacceptable at their convention. It is a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy that states, unequivocally, that if you sexually harass someone at their convention you will be thrown out and never, ever be allowed to return.
It’s worth noting I’m not a fan of ‘zero tolerance’ policies. In my experience, situations are rarely black and white, and maintaining a certain flexibility in your response is a good thing. However, having flexibility in this case should have led to exactly the same response as the zero-tolerance version. Bob committed egregious harassment. Bob continued that harassment after he was told to leave the woman alone. Bob went so far over the line it would look curved from where he was standing.
Yeah. Bob’s harassment was bad enough that I made a perspective joke.
Regardless to say, if there was ever a situation where a harassment policy had clearly been violated, in spirit and letter, this was it, and if ever there was a time for that policy to be enforced, it was now. This is particularly true given that they have enforced this policy before.
Though that person wasn’t a Secret Master of Fandom.
And that’s where this gets bad. You see, everyone there knew Bob. In fact, everyone knew Bob. Everyone liked Bob. People who weren’t there mostly responded to the news with “but… Bob’s a great guy. I can’t believe he’d do that!” A good number spoke up in his defense… until the actual facts of the case came out. Most (not all) have either recanted or at least have said “…well, no, he clearly went way over the line and should be banned.” Again, we’re not really talking about ‘he-said/she-said’ here.
And, as happens when the violator of a policy is a friend… the Board of Directors at Readercon accepted his sincere remorse and contrition, and elected to restrict his ban to two years, instead of being banned for life.
This… went over very, very badly. Dramatically badly. Have another look at that link up there. This is a monumental clusterfuck for everyone involved. And that brings us to what we’re actually talking about: Readercon’s board of directors have managed to take a bad situation and make it a horrible situation… especially for Bob himself.
See, Bob was going to have a bad week. That was inevitable. He’d been caught out being slime. It’s rough to be caught out being slime. It’s especially rough to then have to have friends discipline you over it. Had they enforced the policy, it would have sucked. Missing what was considered a pretty fun con for the foreseeable future would have sucked. And undoubtedly, there would have been some kind of lesson learned.
And there would have been Internet Rage. This was inevitable given the situation. This was a Bad Scene, and people would have reacted to it. There might have been some question as to Bob’s inclusion in other areas of science fiction fandom (as well as some work he does for publishers and the like).
But… as these things do… it would have died down. Readercon would have the moral high ground. Carol would have had her concerns recognized. And a deeper statement would have been made: don’t fucking harass people at our convention. We banned Bob for doing it, and everyone liked him. You won’t stand a chance. Carol could have moved on with her life — not unaffected by what happened (not by a long shot), but vindicated, and knowing that at the least she could return to Readercon confident that her safety and boundaries were their paramount concern. And Bob could have moved on — sadder, wiser (we hope), and contrite. He’d never be able to go back to Readercon, and he might have some unpleasant experiences at other cons for a while… but like I said, it would blow over.
But they didn’t do that. They made an exception. Because it was Bob. And everyone liked Bob.
And thanks to this leniency… Bob’s fandom life is going straight to Hell.
Understand — I’m just as happy Bob’s being raked over the coals. Harassment’s a terrible thing. Period. But we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about Bob’s friends. Bob’s friends who wanted to be nice to Bob, because everyone knew Bob. Everyone liked Bob.
Well you know what? A lot of people out there don’t know Bob. They’d never heard of Bob. But they know of him now, and they don’t like him. And a lot of people who did know him don’t like him any more. A lot of people are demanding Bob be removed from the Worldcon bids he’s part of. A lot of people are demanding the professional organizations he’s affiliated with drop him. Bob is no longer that guy with all the fandom connections who did a horrible thing. He is now Harassment Bob the Harasser who Harasses. This is the defining element of his character.
Does this sound like Readercon did Bob any favors? Do you think Bob’s going to have a good time in three years when he can make his triumphant return to Readercon? Do you think Bob will even have the unmitigated gall to show his face at Readercon, allowed back or not?
Of course, if he doesn’t… well, good for him. Because a whole lot of people won’t be there to see it. Which brings us to point two. How well do you figure this has worked out for Readercon?
Spoiler alert: Not Well.
A lot of people, including Hugo Award winning authors and similar luminaries, have come out very angry about the situation. To them, it is worse than nepotism. It is taking something they believed in — Readercon had a specific reputation as being a safe place — and making it into a lie. Harassment? Well, it’s bad and we’ll stop it… unless you’re, you know, a friend.
There’s a word for that. Betrayal. A lot of people feel actively, personally betrayed by Readercon. Not Readercon’s Board of Directors, mind. Readercon itself. Because people don’t think of the board of directors when they think of a convention. They think of the dealer’s room, the panels, the art show, the masquerade, the room parties. They think of the friends they see there and the cosplay and the video rooms and the atmosphere.
For a lot of fans… they think of acceptance. And in the case of Readercon, they think of safety.
Having this decision alters their perception of the event itself. It colors it, poisoning the well. It twists things around. Readercon stops being a fond memory and an anticipated event. Readercon itself feels deceptive.
That’s something that lasts way longer than an individual board of directors. That’s something that takes years to recover from, if in fact it ever happens.
Finally, there is the most important person involved. Carol. The woman who was harassed.
Harassment is hideous because harassment is insidious. It soaks into your thoughts, making you question your choices that led you there, and coloring the things that happen to you. There’s no way to just wipe it away. Honestly, the only think you can hope for is vindication — the sense that the world understands what has been done, and finds it unacceptable, letting the victim try to move on. In the case of an event like Readercon, that vindication also vindicates that original, core choice — to go to the event in the first place, and put faith in it as a safe environment. Failing to live up to those expectations denies that vindication, and prolongs the time the victim has to process and be actively upset.
There are lessons that need to be learned here. Major ones. And had everything gone according to policy, then it would have been Readercon’s board of directors and Bob’s actual friends who could have taught that lesson — taught it to Bob, and taught it to Readercon attendees who followed. Absent this, that lesson is being taught by the internet and the broader reach of fandom, and they’re doing it with shotguns and chainsaws.
My point — and I do have one — is simple. Harassment policies, like most policies about behavior, don’t simply exist to act as boundaries. They exist to protect the organization alongside the attendees. A zero tolerance policy — whether you agree with them or not — exists in part to eliminate any questions of conflict of interest or nepotism. There is only one response to a given violation. There is no appeal. And when someone popular is snagged by that policy, its very objectivity allows both the perpetrator and (more importantly) the victim the ability to move on with their lives. If the perpetrator really is contrite, then with luck he’ll never do it again, and with time will be able to move past his violation. If the perpetrator isn’t contrite and does do it again, there will already be a spotlight on his behavior which will make it easier to intercept and eject him before he does lasting harm to a victim.
(As a side note — this is all assuming the actions of the perpetrator don’t actually cross into illegality or assualt. Some shit you shouldn’t ever come back from. But that’s neither here nor there.)
If someone, wanting to protect a friend who (they believe) just screwed up and deserves another chance, or wanting to protect the Con from the wrath of shadowy cliques, or whatever goes on, decides to circumvent the policy “this once,” they don’t just screw over the victim (though that would be bad enough). They take all those protections and set them on fire, and the damage done hurts everyone involved far worse than just dishing out the stated punishment in the first place.
In a situation that would have no winners in the best of situations, Readercon has encountered an entirely new level of losing. How it comes back from here, I don’t know. Where Bob goes from here, I don’t care — but he’s got way more than a bad week coming from it now. As for where Carol goes from here… I only hope she takes the response of the vast majority of the Internet as the vindication she deserves.
And I hope the next convention that deals with something like this learns from all the ways this went wrong.