August 20th, 2015

me by ddb

Harassment: What do we do?

ETA: In the first paragraph of this essay, I said something which can very reasonably be seen as a slam against paganism. I apologize for the phrasing. I was thinking of a particular interaction with a particular person, but in failing to be particular, I was rude to a whole variety of people, including many friends. I apologize for this.


So, if you've been following along, you'll have noticed that I've had a pretty full range of experiences with harassment, including having an Harassment Restraining Order taken out against me, experiencing harassment severe enough that the person who did it has been banned from Minicon and Mnstf, and heavily involved in writing the anti-harassment policy for Mnstf and Minicon, and being the Chair of the Code of Conduct Committee for Minicon, which involved handling several actual complaints. I'm glad I'm not a woo-woo pagan, because otherwise I'd have to think that I'd done something to draw all this into my life. Fuck that noise.

The thing that's most recently caught my attention has been Lou Antonelli and Sasquan. For those of you who haven't been making a hobby of the Great Puppygate Train Wreck, the extremely short version is that some guy, in this case Lou Antonelli, sent a letter to the Spokane police alleging that David Gerrold, one of the GoH for Sasquan, was dangerously mentally unbalanced and might incite violence. He then bragged about it on a podcast. There was a round of shock, awe, and horror; an apology to Gerrold from Antonelli; and other things. Sasquan was notified, as is proper. David Gerrold accepted Lou Antonelli's apology. Sasquan issued a statement saying, very roughly, that Antonelli had violated the Code of Conduct, but for Reasons, including a request from Gerrold, they've decided not to ban him.

So, then there's a bunch of Monday morning quarterbacking from just about everybody. Which is fine by me, I like detailed analysis, outrage, and train wrecks. But I'm paying special attention, because on a much smaller scale, this could be me. A lot of people were very upset, and there were two things that caught my eye. The first was a demand for consistent application of the rules, and the second was for transparency. There's a lot of variation on those two themes, but those were the two I am currently noodling on. Consistent application was often equated with zero tolerance.

So, let's start with the actual, root problem. People who feel vulnerable to harassment at science fiction conventions do not trust those conventions to fairly and justly administer the rules. I cannot come close to doing justice to how very reasonable it is for them to feel that way. That distrust? We've built it, brick and mortar, over years. It's not just well deserved, it's hugely massively utterly deserved. Harassment policies have been non-existent, or poorly explained or hugely badly enforced. We have multiple known cases of people being allowed to fuck up because they were well connected, or because the concom didn't want to be arsed, or because concoms just didn't think there was a problem.

The demands for consistency and transparency make a huge amount of sense. This is the way you fix a democratic process that isn't working. Sunshine, lots of sunshine, and clearer rules. And yet, you have only to look at the three strikes laws in various states, or mandatory sentencing, to see how those tools can create new, different, and enhanced problems. If at all possible, I'd like to avoid going down that rathole. We know what those mistakes look like. I'd like to make different mistakes.

In point of fact, I think that the demands for transparency and consistency are actually rooted in a desire that the process not be corrupt. That the rules not be applied only to people we don't like, that the responses to problems be fair and just. And I don't think that transparency and consistency are the way to get there, exactly.

This is, in my opinion, an incredibly hard problem, made harder by the fact that we are starting from a position of having screwed up royally, massively, and utterly.


Let's start with consistent application of the rules, and why I think that we need not to do that.

I have a young woman come to me Friday night of the convention. She's extremely upset. There's a man who has been following her all night. He's followed her into three different room parties, and has repeatedly tried to talk to her. She has consistently told him that she doesn't want to talk to him, and he will not leave her alone. She's afraid to go back to her room because she's afraid he'll follow her there and then know what her room number is.

So, upon further investigation, it is clear that the reporter is telling the truth, there are multiple witnesses, and it is revealed that the subject of the report is:

1) an eighteen year old at his first convention who is very, very drunk

2) the man the reporter broke up with a week ago, and he's following her from party to party, trying to get her to just tell him why she left him

3) George, someone well known to the concom, who's been coming to the convention for 20 years, volunteers sometimes, and has never done anything like this before

4) Mike, who has been coming to the convention for a while. There's no formal report or anything, but literally every woman you ask says, "Euww, him? Let me tell you about the time that..." Stories go back easily twenty years, and some of them involve assault.

5) Nightmare scenario: the subject is your Guest of Honor. He's a big deal name, you've had a significant membership bump this year probably because of him, and he's heavily scheduled on Saturday, including a panel on Harassment at Conventions and another on Why Diversity is Important in Science Fiction. There are a significant number of people at this convention because he's here.

I submit that you absolutely do not want to handle these situations the same. The offense is absolutely identical. Harassment, stalking, making an attendee afraid. Completely unacceptable. And I think that, if I were running the zoo, I would handle them differently.

My drunk eighteen year old, I tell to go home and get sober. I impress upon him that his behavior is utterly unacceptable, and if he behaves that way again, I will bounce him from the convention. Likewise, if I find him illegally drinking again, I will bounce him from the convention. I document so that I remember this next year, if necessary.

The ex-boyfriend, I bounce from the convention. I totally get that love makes you do the wacky, and that he may very well only have a problem with this one person, but it is clearly too soon for him to be around his ex socially, and he violated the Code of Conduct. Go home, do better next year. I document so that I remember this next year, if necessary.

George, long time attendee. I have a conversation with George that starts out with, "George, what the fuck?" While it is very unlikely that there's anything in particular I can do to help George, I'd really like to know. He's actually probably a friend of mine. But I also give him a stern warning, and will bounce him from the con if there's a repetition. I document so that I remember this next year, if necessary.

Mike I bounce. Right now. I also instigate a more thorough investigation after the convention to consider a permanent ban. But that doesn't need to be done right now. Right now, he needs to be gone.

Nightmare Pro: Oh lords. I need to talk to the con chair(s), right fucking now. Then, I find the liaison and regretfully explain that his con got a whole lot more complicated. Mr. Pro now needs 24/7 babysitting. The liaison and I will need to strategize on how that is going to work, and if we need to get someone else to help out, what with the liaison probably having a life. We need to go over the programming schedule. Absolutely, he can't be on the harassment panel. And now I need head of programming, and we need to figure out if the panel needs to suddenly have a scheduling conflict which requires it to be cancelled, or if we just need to keep Mr. Pro away. We need to look at the moderator for the diversity panel, and make a decision about that, too. We also need to go over the program again, carefully, and decide if there's anything else that needs to be adjusted. We really hope not. Then, we need to meet with Mr. Pro, explain the complaint, explain that it's a violation of the Code of Conduct, and explain that he will be babysat from now on. We explain the changes to his programming schedule. This will not be a fun conversation, but there's no way around it. After that is over, I need to have another in depth conversation with the chair(s) about contingency plans. Total nightmare. And, by the way, no way out of this that doesn't involve the internet deciding that pros get special treatment and that my convention is just as corrupt and evil as [insert favorite despot].

But I submit that treating an eighteen year old drunk the same as a known serial harasser, even if I don't have impeccable documentation, is inappropriate. And treating a known quantity with no history of bad behavior the same as a drunk eighteen year old is also inappropriate. At very minimum, they are very different conversations. And those conversations, they're important. They're the way we build towards the future.

And in all of this, I create careful documentation which is available for future iterations of this convention. If ex-boyfriend has a similar meltdown with a different ex in a year or two, then huh, that's kind of a different problem. If George, with a 20 year impeccable history, fucks up again next year, huh, that's a different problem. Mr. Pro we need to not invite back, and absolutely need to keep track of if he decided to exercise his "free membership for former GoH" status.


Um, yikes? Really, yikes. There are so many good reasons for it, I'm not sure it's the right way forward. And I'm really interested in what people have to say.

Let's start with Sasquan, who I think screwed the pooch in a very important way. When they said that they decided not to ban Lou Antonelli, they said it was in part because of a request by David Gerrold. This is probably true. They should never, ever have said that. The problem is that the convention must own its own behavior. It must be responsible for maintaining and enforcing its Code of Conduct. And they must never put that off on the victim. That's never ok.

As a person who has actually recently been harassed, I can state affirmatively that it was months before I was distant enough from it to have anything like a reasoned response to it. And in the first days after it had passed, I veered wildly from "I want him to die in a fire" to "I think that maybe it wasn't that big a deal" and back again. Ctein, who was a party to the same instance of violation, had similar responses. It is really, really hard to sort it all out. And it puts an additional burden on someone who is already under a strain and is having All The Feels. Moreover, the convention has multiple responsibilities, and they need to remember that there are other people involved. A person who is harassing someone is quite likely to do so to someone else. So even if your reporter is saying, "Well, it's no big deal," that doesn't mean it won't be a big deal to someone else. We also tend to underestimate the amount of damage this stuff does to bystanders. In my theoretical example, not only did the young woman experience grief because of the persistent stalking behavior, but all of her friends and casual bystanders were subjected to acrimonious confrontations. This changes the mood and energy of the party, and can do real damage to some people. We can't stop every unpleasant encounter, nor do we want to. But we do want to foster a better environment than this, surely.

Conventions cannot implement a judicial model for dealing with harassment. We have none of the infrastructure that goes with the legal system. We don't have investigators, prosecutors, defenders, juries, judges, enforcement arms, checks, balances, etc. What we are is a social organization, and as such, what we are making are social judgments. Who do we want to hang out with? Does this enhance our overall environment, or is it detrimental? We can't aspire to certainty, either. In practice, that means that a lot of the information that we use to make these judgments is going to be either confidential or subjective, probably both.

So, when I had a problem with Ken Konkol, I pointed out to the powers that be that Ken has been a known problem for 40 years. All well and good. But when the powers that be looked at that statement, they were also aware of a bunch of contextual stuff. I've only been around Mnstf for about 20 years. I am good friends with people who have been around Mnstf for much longer. They know the types of behaviors I have and haven't tolerated in public. They know how likely I am to confabulate. They have a good sense of how often I get upset in public. The fact that I completely lost my cool, to the point of shouting at the top of my lungs for some little time, is partly understood in the context of a person who almost never does that. And so on. Lots of contextual information. Also lots of reputational information. My reputation and Ken's were well known, and weighed against each other. Much of this you wouldn't really want in a court of law. But I think this is appropriate when looking at a social situation.

Many times, the person who reports harassment is going to have at least some confidentiality issues. Possibly he doesn't want his name used, possibly she wants to have some of the details kept private, possibly they don't want anyone to know they said anything. Possibly you will have witnesses that have confidentiality issues.

Transparency in this case is a huge problem. "Yep, we have a credible report from someone whose name we can't use, backed up by another person we can't identify, about some details we can't reveal." How is saying this better than not saying anything? I fail to see being vague is more likely to cause people to trust us than not saying anything.


And, we're back to trust. We've built this lack of trust, and now we're suffering for it. And I'm not sure what they best way forward is. I really feel for Sasquan. I think they handled their public statement badly, but I have no way of knowing if they actually handled the situation badly. Back into theory land: I have a guest of honor, someone invited because he is generally loved and revered. One of my goals, as concom, is to honor him. And he comes to me with this problem, and then tells me, "It would so totally ruin my convention if you banned this guy. I really feel that my harasser and I have come to a good place, and I really need you to let him attend. It's important to me. I know it's not how you would prefer to handle this, but it really matters to me."

I dunno. I have no idea if that happened or not. But if it were me, and my GoH said that, I might let the fucker attend, you know? On strict watch and stuff, but I might. I would have to consider, carefully, how likely the problem person was to be a problem in person, but in the end, I might allow the GoH to influence my final decision. I wouldn't say that in public, though, because I think that's a disaster on wheels. It implies that I'm not accepting responsibility for my decision, and that's a beautiful way to build more distrust. I have no idea why Sasquan did what they did. And I don't think I should. But I wish they'd handled their public face a little better.