Speech codes at SF cons?

Harassment at science fiction conventions is a real problem; some people use the open and relaxed atmosphere as a cover for making others seriously uncomfortable, or they assume that all the women are there for sex. Some people, unfortunately, use legitimate fear to advance their own unrelated goals. An example is this proposed “harassment” policy, which some people have said should be adopted by SF conventions.

It has short, medium, and long versions. The short one is just a pointer. The medium one is an expression of puritanism: Its one specific characterization of harassment is “sexual language and imagery,” which is declared “not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.” No bawdy filksongs. No panels on Pon Farr.

The long version gets worse.

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments [related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, [your specific concern here]]…

The prohibition on “offensive verbal comments” is similar to the speech codes at many institutions of higher learning. Any strong opinion is likely to be offensive to someone. If someone says I’m going to Hell for not subscribing to his religion, I find that offensive. If I answer that his religion is superstition, he’ll probably be offended. Under normal circumstances, that’s all there is to it. But if we exchange those views at a con with that policy, we can both be cited for “harassment.” Only bland opinions are safe. (Actually, I’d be safe, the evangelist not so much. Speech code enforcement targets unpopular views.)

[Exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. In particular, exhibitors should not use sexualized images, activities, or other material. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.]

Have you ever been to Arisia? If only the G-rated dealers remained, the dealers’ room would be about a fifth of its current size.

However, staff should take immediate action to politely and calmly stop any presentation or event that repeatedly or seriously violates the anti-harassment policy. For example, simply say “I’m sorry, this presentation cannot be continued at the present time” with no further explanation.

Panels would just be shut down on the spot, without explanation, if the opinions expressed or the images presented were offensive to somebody.

I’ve come across a tweet, by a person who endorsed this policy proposal, attacking its critics for being “old” and “white.” Their prohibition on offensive race-related remarks evidently doesn’t apply to themselves.

It’s been argued that SF cons are private functions and therefore not bound by the US Constitution to grant freedom of speech. This is true but beside the point. Free and open discussion is a value to the human mind, even when government force isn’t at issue. It’s better to be able to hear ideas and say why they’re wrong than to live in a controlled environment where unpleasant ideas are banned. How can you answer them if you’re protected from hearing them?

Dealing with actual harassment at cons is a difficult matter. The concom can’t be everywhere, and its legal options are limited. There’s generally a provision that people can be kicked out for broadly specified misbehavior, but concoms are reluctant to use it because of possible repercussions, especially when it’s one person’s word against another’s. Some conventions have adopted zero-tolerance policies, which make no distinction between major and minor offenses and have driven people away. A convention can ban offenders from the function space, but not from the hotel, so even a stringent policy might not stop a serious problem.

If you run into really serious harassment, contact hotel security or law enforcement. They can do something that will stick. The committee should be ready to make sure they don’t just brush it off. Some fans are lawyers and can be a big help.

If you see someone being harassed in more subtle ways, speak up. It can be easy to mistake banter between friends for real trouble, but it’s OK to ask if there’s a problem, and to offer support if there is. Don’t physically intervene unless it’s an emergency; that’s a recipe for trouble. A lot of fans are habitually oblivious to what’s going on; learning to notice trouble can help. Making it clear that it’s OK to say no and mandatory to accept it can also be a big help. A well-written convention policy can be a good source of moral support, as long as the concom isn’t expected to police everyone’s behavior. Creating a safe environment is everyone’s responsibility, not just the job of the overworked convention organizers.

There’s been a lot of good material lately about harassment, and I don’t want the speech-code people to cash in on it. For instance, this post by Carrie Cuinn and its followup cite some really outrageous things that happen at cons and make good points about the approach to take.

There are a few real nasties who frequent SF cons, and it’s hard to say just what to do with them. Sometimes they get banned, but this is a slow process and a last resort. Certainly no prohibition on panels about sex will slow them up. The best approach is awareness by everybody.

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2 Responses to “Speech codes at SF cons?”

  1. bgoldnyxnet Says:

    Gary wrote: “Free and open discussion is a value to the human mind, even when government force isn’t at issue.”

    It is especially valuable in the SF community: cons and clubs and fanzines. We should be free to say what we want, popular or unpopular. My favorite quote on the subject is from former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson: My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.

    It’s just as true now as it was in 1952.


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