Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Biased Opinion - Stopping Harassment After the Fact Just Isn't Good Enough

On Saturday, August 19th, 2016, the redhead and I were at MidAmeriCon II and heading towards a panel titled The Shipping Forecast set to be moderated by Keith Yatsuhashi and featuring Jaylee James and Alyssa Wong. The topic of the panel was the appeal of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic settings for shippers. We had decided to attend this panel specifically because Wong was on it, and we wanted to see the Campbell finalist speak in person. We figured that this was the perfect panel to highlight the skills of someone with her talent for creepy and unsettling fiction.

Alyssa Wong wasn't at the panel.

At the start of the scheduled hour, Yatsuhashi announced that Wong would not be able to attend for personal reasons, and that the trio of scheduled panelists was reduced to a duo. They tried to do their best, but without the third voice the panel got off to an unsteady start, and the redhead and I ended up leaving early, disappointed.

It was only later that we learned what had happened. It seems that two writers of a column called Exploding Spaceship for the online magazine Bull Spec had harassed Wong at WisCon leading to a "no contact" order being issued to them. They turned up at MidAmeriCon and started up more or less where they had left off, continuing to harass Wong and targeting Brooke Bolander as well after she tried to intervene on Alyssa's behalf. Wong, with Fran Wilde's assistance, filed an incident report Saturday morning. To their credit, the MidAmeriCon staff worked quickly and the two people who had harassed Wong were ejected from the convention in relatively short order. In her account of the event, Wong praised the MidAmeriCon staff on this score, but to a certain extent, the damage had already been done because the only thing that they could do at that point amounted to efforts at remediation and amelioration.

Responding to incidents of harassment is important, and it seems that conventions overall are getting better at doing so, but this only deals with one side of the problem. Conventions need to get better at preventing harassment - by identifying repeat harassers and dealing with them accordingly. In their statement announcing the suspension of the two columnists who harassed Wong at WisCon and MidAmeriCon, Bull Spec revealed that their inquiries had uncovered yet another harassment incident that the pair had been involved in at ConCarolinas. That makes three incidents that we know of. Who knows how many more took place that we don't know about. Someone might say that that is three incidents too many, but that's a standard that would be impossible to meet. However, three incidents is probably at least one, and possibly two, too many to be acceptable in terms of conventions acting responsibly to prevent harassment.

In the aftermath of this incident, I have seen numerous posts on blogs and social media discussing it, and the comments have been full of people, mostly women, saying some variant of "this is why I don't go to conventions". Allowing serial harassers to attend conventions is driving a not inconsequential number of people away. The question people running conventions have to ask themselves is simply this: Are we going to provide an environment that is welcoming to people with a track record of harassing others at other conventions, or are we going to provide an environment that is welcoming to the people who are currently staying away from their event because they fear that they will be the target of harassment. Right now, most conventions seem to have taken a somewhat confused stance, becoming better at responding to harassment, but appearing to do almost nothing to prevent it.

Conventions need to be better at stopping harassment before it starts. To be blunt, conventions need to deny entry to potential attendees with a track record of misbehavior. I expect that there will be significant push back on this point, in large part due to the fact that it runs counter to Geek Social Fallacy #1 of "Ostracizers Are Evil" as outlined by Michael Suileabhain-Wilson in 2003. On a certain level, I understand the reaction: No one wants to be the person who tells someone else that they are barred from coming to the party. On another level, however, I am convinced that this sort of preemptive banning is probably necessary: Ignoring these sorts of issues is one of the things that is driving people away from conventions. As Suileabhain-Wilson wrote, "nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate". Apply those figures to convention attendees, and then consider how many of the "80%" are simply staying away and it becomes clear that the cost of doing nothing is something that conventions really can't afford to ignore. When one considers that the individuals who would be excluded are those who have demonstrated a propensity to violate the rules of the convention in the past, the need for preemptive action becomes even more readily apparent.

Setting aside the reluctance of people to actually pull the trigger and exclude known bad actors from conventions, the primary practical impediment to doing so is the lack of public information about such bad behavior. When it came to light that the people who harassed Wong at MidAmeriCon II were the same people who had harassed her at WisCon, some excused the MidAmeriCon II staff's lack of proactive action upon the fact that they probably didn't know about the incident at WisCon. The sad truth is that this is very plausible. After all, as far as I can tell, until Bull Spec revealed that their investigations had uncovered an additional instance of harassment traced to the same perpetrators at ConCarolinas, it appears that most people didn't know about that either. The problem is that conventions seem to be very bad at communicating with one another. There is some communication between conventions, but it is informal, winding through back-channels and passed by word of mouth. If someone running one convention doesn't know someone at another, they may never find out about issues that have cropped up, and even if they do, it will probably be related as an anecdote that is likely to be garbled in some way in the telling.

As things stand now, it is entirely possible for someone to go to a convention, harass someone, get kicked out, and the next month go to a second convention, harass someone again, and get kicked out again. That same person could probably go to a third convention the next month, harass someone yet again, and then get kicked out yet again. And on and on, repeating the pattern every month or two, and no one at any of the conventions would know what had happened before the serial harasser caused a problem at their event. And then they could possibly do it all over the next year, starting with the original convention, because not only do conventions not talk to one another about problem attendees, some seem to not even talk internally.

Right now, there is no real way to document patterns of bad behavior on the part of convention attendees. Conventions simply must get better at documenting and sharing information about instances of harassment. There needs to be some way to keep track of who has been ejected from a convention, and for what reason. Other conventions have to be able to look at these records and decide whether to issue a badge to individuals with a propensity to cause trouble. Conventions must be willing to preemptively ban serial harassers and bad actors. Had ConCarolinas documented the harassment that took place at their event and made it available to other conventions, and WisCon documented the harassment that took place at their event and made that available to other conventions, then this pair would not have been able to fly under the radar the way they did and turn up at MidAmeriCon II without anyone there being aware of their history. Had such a system already been in place, the people who harassed Alyssa Wong at MidAmeriCon II might not have even been there to harass her in the first place.

I don't know what the perfect solution is here, but I do know that conventions can do better. Scratch that - I know that conventions have to do better, because when it comes right down to it, not taking action to head off harassment means siding with the harassers and throwing their victims over the side. If conventions are serious about making themselves a welcoming place, then they need to start working together to identify harassers and stop them before they get through the door.

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