[ETA: I am leaving in all the typos, because this is getting linked and re-tweeted. My apologies. Now you know why Apex Magazine has a copyeditor who is not me.]
[ETA 2: DAMMIT, I am correcting Jacquelyn Gill’s name.]
Part 1: The Background
And then I blogged a bit more about it.
And then a Wiscon Disciplinary Subcommittee member, Jacquelyn Gill, blogs about her experience and her assessment of the process.
I specifically want to quote Gill here:
“Clearly, by trying to think about this in terms of a judiciary board, we let down many in the broader membership who don’t feel safe because they know that Frenkel isn’t permanently, unequivocally banned. In that case, we didn’t need a disciplinary board; we needed something else, like a ConCom or membership vote on whether he be allowed to attend. Procedurally and philosophically, those are two different things.”
And she goes on to say:
“As Frenkel’s disciplinary sub-committee, we tried hard to set a clear precedence in terms of our procedure. This was the first trial run of such a disciplinary board, and in the aftermath, I am realizing that there are weaknesses in this model. I do think that the decision we made was fair and just from the perspective of our Code of Conduct, but it’s become clear from the community reaction it’s not what the membership, or even many of the members of the ConCom, wanted.”
This morning, Kameron Hurley posted Burn It All Down: Wiscon’s Failure of Feminism. I’d like to quote a couple of passages from her post as well:
“How in the fucking world did a feminist convention come to value the hurt feelings of a serial harasser over the safety of its membership?”
“[Y]ou shouldn’t purport to be a fucking feminist fucking science fiction fucking convention if you can’t even uphold the basic tenants of feminism and provide a reasonably less sexist environment for discussions to take place. You can point out sexism when it exists, and remove people from conversations and spaces who are derailing those conversations and actively endangering the women whose voices you say are so equal. Like, you can do that, because you’re a private event and you can set a code of conduct that is, you know, not sexist.
Fascinating, I know. Fucking miraculous.
You can even kick people the fuck out who’ve been a problem for twenty years.”
What I saw yesterday on Twitter indicates that the preponderance of folks talking right now agree with Hurley. That Wiscon, as a private space, gets to do what it wants, and that the decision of the Subcommittee is therefore a failure of will and intention. The decision is taking Frenkel’s side. The decision is a failure to defend women.
This post is not about that. This post is about process. It’s about policy. It’s about doing better going forward.
Part 2: The Judicial Model and It’s Problems
I have a few issues and concerns with Gill’s depiction of events. NOTE: I am not criticizing Gill, here. I think that her rendition of events sounds exactly like every sort of concom decision of moderate complexity I’ve ever witnessed. Better than a lot of them, to be honest. I’ve served in Ops, I’ve seen how decisions get made in the moment, and then how the ball gets dropped afterwards. This whole process sounds … about average for how a decentralized group decision gets processed.
[Digression: conventions don’t do a really good job of talking to each other AS INSTITUTIONS. We rely on bar conversations and smoffing — in itself a word opaque to newcomers, it means “secret masters of fandom talking” — to transmit good ideas and warn against bad ones. This is, frankly, insufficient for the needs of the day. CONvergence, Wiscon, Geek Girl Con, I care about y’all. Get your shit together and start sharing policies and procedures with other conventions. Stop struggling along, work together.]
I do wish that, under the judicial board model used, the Frenkel Subcommittee had interviewed victims and witnesses. I wish that an open statement had been made pointing to the Code of Conduct, his violations of it, and where the subcommittee’s decision fell on an openly known schedule of penalties. I wish that the evidentiary bar was openly discussed and known.
If you are going to use a judicial model, commit. Dammit.
Yet one of the primary concerns of concoms in general in all incidents of conflict is to preserve the confidentiality of the victims. In a court- or trial-based model in the U.S., by-and-large the accused gets to know who their accuser is. The defendant gets to hear all the evidence and know where it originates. Can we use the judicial model AND preserve victim confidentiality? Can we give statements anonymously? How do we design a system that protects the rights of the victims and the accused? (NOTE: Protecting the rights of the accused is NOT THE SAME as defending the ability of harassers to harass. Not at all.)
As it stands, I have seen people angry that Frenkel was so severely punished based on “hearsay” and “one incident.” This is the consequence of keeping information secret, hidden, and confidential. I have ALSO seen people angry that all the reports against him from other conventions and conferences was NOT held against him, angry that decades of systematic abuse of power wasn’t being considered. This is the consequence of attempting a model of trial for one crime at a time.
Are we trying him? Was this a trial? Was he charged with one incident of harassment? A dozen over many years? No-one outside of the subcommittee knew what the subcommittee was intending to do before it was done. If we are to be courts, let us make proper courts. Elise Matthesen pointed out (in a private email, and I have her permission to quote her,) that what we have here is not a judiciary model, but judiciary model cosplay. All the seeming, not enough function.
What we have re-created is secret tribunals, in which people are accused secretly, the evidence and witnesses are secret, and the punishment is meted out according to unknown criteria.
I am strongly reminded of the fact that revolutions are by-and-large run by very smart people, dedicated to strong principles, with all the good intention in the world.
Part 3: Systems Questions, Analysis, and Procedures
But, on to my main point.
The Wiscon statement is not merely about Jim Frenkel. It’s about policy. It’s about establishing a precedent. Institutions need to not respond to Just This One Case, they must respond to the cases that follow.
I urge all of you reading this to ponder your best convention harassment policy. Now imagine that your enemies, the people you distrust, those who have harmed you, are running the con next year. Do you want them implementing the policies you just advocated?
Consider — harassment does not merely mean sexual harassment. Imagine you are talking at a con and I find your views threatening. I feel unsafe. I feel attacked. I report you to the convention for creating an unsafe space. Do you want to be the recipient of this?
Consider — have you ever had a relationship end poorly? Romantic, familial, friendship, whatever? Have you ever witnessed the end of a bad breakup? Do you recall the back and forth as people advocated different versions of events? Does your policy withstand accidental manipulation from well-intentioned people who strongly advocate a single recollection of events?
NONE OF THESE QUESTIONS are doubting the reports against Frenkel. I am not saying that the people who reported him for harassment are wrong, or exaggerating, or melodramatic.
NOR am I saying that what you are proposing — yes you, there on Twitter and on your blog, talking about this issue — is stupid or misguided or doomed to fail.
I am saying we need to think about it. I am saying we need to know our goals as organizations. I am saying the establishing policy is difficult. That institutional policy needs to take into account ethical agents, and misinformed agents, and malicious agents. Policy needs to examine power differentials, it needs to have standards for what constitutes harm, standards for what constitutes report or rumor or fact.
This conversation needs to be about making conventions welcoming, safe, fair, and just. If a policy rests on “but everyone knows I’m a good person, and we all know that guy is a creeper,” that is neither fair nor just nor safe.
Rose Fox said yesterday on Twitter, quoting from Gill’s blog post, “‘I am starting to think that a judicial model is not actually what the community wants.’ Where have you BEEN. Of course it’s not.”
I am not certain I agree with Fox. I am not certain I disagree, either.
It cannot be the job of a convention staff to weigh five, fifteen, forty years of backstory, personal reputation, and hearsay in order to assess each report. Institutions need a standard that is clear to everyone when they first attend a convention. “These are the rules; here is what we will do if you break them. Here is our Standard of Conduct; here is the schedule of penalties for violating it.”
It IS a convention’s job to create clear policy that gives attendees the reasonable expectation that they will be free from verbal and physical harm and intimidation, and that violators of these expectations will be dealt with in a way that ensues the behavior will not be repeated at the convention. It IS a convention’s job to inform specific, named individuals of the guidelines for implementing those policies and endow them with the authority, knowledge, and skill-set to do so.
[Digression: And that’s a whole other thing. The knowledge and skills. Who is qualified to investigate a report of harassment? How do we separate victim advocacy from fair and just investigation? Do we train a pool of people internationally to be experts in these matter? Who pays for that? Do we rely on new, and presumed impartial, volunteers in each case? How do we retain the VITAL institutional memory and knowledge base without creating institutional parties of power with vested interests in their own success?
Dear Reader, dear, dear Reader, I beg of you — if you know how to solve these problems, please let the U. S. court system know. Please.]
Is that a judiciary model? Is that a disciplinary model? Is it an arbitration? Are conventions run by concom fiat? Are they run by hereditary councils? Is it nepotism and favor? Do those who do the work earn the right to speak? They are NOT democracies or representative democracies, and never have been. Is the model for conflict resolution to be one of consensus building and mutual understanding? Are we to take South Africa’s reconciliation boards as our method?
Part 4: Questions Going Forward
I’m going to quote Kameron Hurley again:
“And I look forward to the day, in 30 years, when young women come by and burn out this new crop of feminists for being too backward and conservative.
I look forward to that day for myself, too. I look forward to being held up by radical young feminists as all that’s wrong in the world – because then I’ll know I’ve done my job in helping to nurture folks far braver than I.
People who are so fucking done with my bullshit.
So, now it’s in your hands, my friends. You can volunteer to become a member of Wiscon, take up the fight from within with the volunteers inside fighting the good fight, or go start your own truly progressive cons, and support those working to become more progressive.
Some of you, I know, will do both (bless you).
There’s a future that needs building, but somebody who’s actually courageous and principled needs to take up the fucking spade and build it.
Is it you?”
I am reminded of Babylon 5, of the Shadows and the Vorlons.
Who are you?
What do you want?
As communities we need to answer these questions. What sort of institutions do we want to be? How will we make ourselves into those things? How will we face the unintended consequences?
I urge you all, reading this, to genuinely think about what you want to see done. At Wiscon, or, if you have had enough of that, at whatever convention you hold dear. Talk about your position openly. Stand by it. Listen to others. Ask hard questions. Respond thoughtfully to challenges. Think about it carefully. Think about how you want the future to unfold.
Which way to you want to fuck up? Do you want to get an innocent person banned from a con and blacklisted elsewhere? Do you want to allow a sexual predator to volunteer at a con? Do you want the ill-informed and uncertain deciding the fates of other people? Do you want power concentrated in the hands of an unelected and un-removable elite? Do you want a bland, middle-of-the-road position that screws up a little bit in every direction and makes everyone angry with you all the time?
Think about it.
Be the change you want to see in the world.
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