Noah (spoilers)

It’s been a while since there’s been a really impressive disaster movie, but this weekend a big one is opening. It’s a bit reminiscent of the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, where an eco-terrorist from space threatens to destroy all human life for not being better stewards of the planet. In this movie, based on the book Genesis, the alien terrorist (called “the Creator”) succeeds. All human life is wiped out, except for one family. All the animal life in the world is drowned, except for what the protagonist Noah can save in one boat. The Creator does all this in the name of “saving the environment.”

The decision to set this movie in ancient times is an odd one. The Creator doesn’t face any noticeable opposition. There are no planes for him to blast out of the sky. There are no scientists hopelessly rushing to find a way to prevent the global disaster. There’s just the wholesale slaughter of helpless, primitive people.

What would this alternate world be like after such an event? After the Creator’s done with his mad ecological crusade, the waters recede onto the worst scene of global devastation since the last Yellowstone super-eruption. All that’s left to repopulate the world is a boat in the Middle East with a cargo of animals, mostly just two of each kind, seven of some. The human race is down to a genetic bottleneck of one family. Most of the surviving species would probably go extinct in a generation. Many of the drowned plants would reseed themselves; in fact, the world would likely turn into a jungle planet from all that watering. And the Creator is still around to inflict further horrors on the survivors. (Later on in Genesis, he turns a woman into salt when she witnesses his firebombing a city.)

Personally, I’d rather see the Hulk meet the Creator and give him what he deserves. But then it would be a rather short movie.

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FilKONtario’s harassment policy

Update: Judith Hayman has mentioned to me that the FilKONtario committee will be looking into possible changes after this year’s convention. I don’t know to what extent they’ve accepted my concerns, but it’s good to hear.

I’ve attended FilKONtario many times, and it’s one of my favorite filk conventions. When I saw its new “harassment policy,” though, I seriously considered not attending this year. Still, I have a lot of reasons to go, some personal, some related to the upcoming ConCertino 2015, which I’m chairing. I’ll be there, in spite of my serious concerns, which I’m airing publicly here. It’s difficult to criticize friends so strongly in public, but it’s necessary.

Let’s treat this as an exercise in how to solve the real problem of harassment at some conventions. In my experience, most harassment of convention members comes from people at the hotel who aren’t affiliated with the convention. In the times I’ve been on a con committee, I’ve never personally received a complaint of intra-convention harassment. I do know of one person who has a very bad reputation and is watched closely. People are often reluctant to talk about what happens, and it’s important to encourage them to get help when things get out of hand. I have personal experience with a years-long harassment campaign against me, so I know it does exist and can be very painful.

We need to start by defining harassment. It’s harassment to threaten people; to intrude repeatedly or severely on their personal space; to follow them closely for extended periods when they don’t want it; to engage in campaigns of lies about them. It’s not harassment, in and of itself, to say things people don’t like hearing, to hurt their feelings, or to criticize them.

Let’s look at FKO’s definition of harassment.

Harassment is any serious or repeated improper conduct by an individual that is directed at and offensive to another person or persons at the convention, and that the individual knew or ought reasonably to have known would cause offence or harm. It comprises any objectionable act, comment, or display that demeans, belittles, or causes personal humiliation or embarrassment, and any act of intimidation or threat.

Parts of this are reasonable. Intimidation, threats, and other actions that cause harm have no place at a con. The rest, however, amounts not to a harassment policy but a speech code. It claims that causing offense is harassment, that comments that demean or belittle are harassment, that causing embarrassment is harassment. Songs aren’t specifically mentioned, but I have to assume that songs that offend or embarrass people are included. (Some people in filk are mortally offended by any songs that use the word “gypsy.” I asked Judith about this, and she said those songs wouldn’t be banned.)

Fandom used to be about openness. This is changing, as students come out of colleges where dissenting ideas are frowned upon and sometimes punished, where tiny “free-speech zones” are set up just to emphasize that speech isn’t free anywhere else. I’m surprised that the FKO committee, which is mostly an older bunch, has gone in this direction. I’ve corresponded with Judith Hayman on this; her reply (which, annoyingly, I can’t find now) didn’t encourage me much.

The policy also forbids discrimination, without discriminating among its forms:

Discrimination is not tolerated. The Canadian Human Rights Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code prohibit discrimination by race, national or ethnic origin, citizenship, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.

People discriminate in all kinds of ways, of which a few are rightfully considered bad. It’s unjust and irrational, when hiring people, to apply criteria that are irrelevant to job performance. When you’re selling something, usually the only appropriate concern is whether the buyer has the money to pay for it. (US law requires discrimination by citizenship and national origin in many cases, so in a sense the FKO policy is better than that.) But FKO is not a business conference. It’s unlikely anyone’s making job offers there, and I’m sure the merchandise dealers aren’t going to turn down anyone’s money. In personal matters, people have their own preferences, for whatever reason they want, and they’re nobody else’s business.

Prohibiting personal discrimination undercuts the harassment policy. If B refuses A’s attentions (I’m trying extra hard here to avoid pronouns), A can legitimately claim that B is discriminating against A, and can say that the forbidden factors, such as being too young, too old, or not B’s preferred sex, are the reason. The concom might not pay attention to this claim, but it can be a tool of intimidation: “You say anything about what I did, and I’ll say you discriminated against me because of my [your trait’s name here].”

People coming to a convention do have a legitimate discrimination concern. Newcomers want to know that its organizers will treat them fairly. This is the responsibility of the concom. If anything, we organizers should be making promises of non-discrimination, not demands. When I’m attending FKO, I should be able to hang out with anyone I want without caring who “tolerates” it. When I’m chairing ConCertino, if you come to me with a problem, it’s my job to deal with it whether you’re my close friend or not. Saying “discrimination will not be tolerated” rather than “we promise not to discriminate” is backwards and arrogant.

My best guess is that the committee wanted a policy that was broad enough to let them kick any troublemaker out without an argument, and that they aren’t going to turn into speech and song police. But super-broad policies aren’t the way to go; or if they are, they should simply say “We reserve the right to expel anyone for any reason.” Let’s take a vaguely plausible scenario: Someone takes to making long, loud speeches in the con suite that disrupt everyone else’s enjoyment. This would constitute an “objectionable act” that “causes offense,” certainly, so the offender can be kicked out. The problem is that officially, the person has been kicked out not for being a disruptive loudmouth, but for the more serious-sounding charge of harassment. In order to play by its own rules, the con will unnecessarily damage the offender’s reputation.

There’s a distinct anti-free-speech trend in western society of late. The label “hate speech” is an excuse to ban any speech someone hates. Student petitioners at Rowan University wanted to ban religious speakers they disagreed with. Belgium has made it an offense punishable by up to a year in prison for saying “sexist” things. A professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara assaulted a protester and is encouraging her students to do likewise. Fandom should be a safe place for the expression of unpopular views, not a domain patrolled by speech police.

Rules are necessary, though. A policy of arbitrary expulsion covers everything, but it doesn’t show much respect for people who’ve traveled a long way and doesn’t gain their confidence. It’s better to let people know what is expected of them, but to do it in a reasonable way, not with the broadest brush. ConCertino has had this rule since the nineties: “People are expected to act in a civilized way and not interfere with other people’s reasonable activities, privacy, or property without their consent.” That covers the con suite loudmouth, and if it’s necessary to apply the ultimate penalty (which I’d only want to do if the loudmouthing was really egregious), the basis is interference with reasonable activities. There is increasing concern about harassment, and in an earlier post, I suggested a harassment clause to add to the ConCertino policy, and refined it based on feedback. The revised version is in the draft convention rules.

I want to make ConCertino 2015 as safe a convention as we reasonably can. I think that’s what we all want, at every filk convention. If you have concerns, tell me about them. If you expect specific troublemakers, talk to me privately. If there’s a serious problem, remember that the concom can’t really do much; talk to hotel security or the Boxboro cops if it’s necessary. But I’m not going to enforce speech rules on anyone. If you don’t like what someone is saying, you’re free to express your disagreement.

I do have other weapons at my disposal, though, for people who are persistently unpleasant. Meddle not with bards, for your name is funny and scans to “Greensleeves.” Aside from that, the most important thing is for each convention member to be ready to respond to signs of trouble. Everyone can help make a filk con a safe, welcoming environment.

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Open Borders Day

Today, I’ve learned, is Open Borders Day. No government official has proclaimed it; people are simply choosing to observe it, without needing an authority to tell us to.

People who can’t stand the thought of letting others compete with them for jobs have helped to create a situation in which the southwest border country of the US is a police state, with the armed thugs of the Border Patrol committing atrocities and then billing the victims. People traveling on Interstate highways are routinely stopped and questioned on whether they have government permission to be there. Politicians are quietly working to expand E-Verify, a national database holding information on whether people are permitted to work for a living. Hazelton, Pennsylvania, attempted to impose an ordinance that would require people to prove they’re allowed to live under a roof.

The Statue of Liberty once stood as a symbol of welcome to immigrants. I hope that someday it will be again.

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Musical world tour, cost zero

I’ve been spending a little time digging on the Internet into music from around the world. The aim wasn’t so much to find music that I’d like as to get more perspectives on the styles in various countries. It’s like looking into an unfamiliar language; even if I don’t really get it, I can get a glimpse into another approach.

The first thing that I discovered is that when you search for music from any country, you’ll find a lot of stuff that sounds like Anglo-American pop. That’s learning, too; it shows the extent to which our culture has affected others. But it really wasn’t what I was looking for, so I did more digging. Here are a few interesting bits, in case you’re inclined to try your own exploration:

The Internet Chinese Music Archive: Some of the pieces in this collection of instrumental music sound strange to me, but I like some, such as the “Broad Road Songs.” With different instrumentation I might like it better; it features a stringed instrument whose tone is sometimes harsh.

From Mali, “C’est un S.O.S.!” on YouTube. This really doesn’t count as discovery of a foreign style, since it’s rap, but I hardly ever like rap, so it’s foreign to me. I’m impressed by the seriousness of the message expressed. Besides, the music does seem to have elements of African style.

Didgeridoo music on YouTube. If someone wanted to create music for aliens from another planet, this might be a good place to start.

Greek dance music on YouTube. Here I’m definitely on my homeworld, but it might not be yours. I grew up on 7/8 time; this helps to explain the tune I lifted for “The Hyper Hilton.”

“Sahara Essence (instrumental Arabic music)” on YouTube. Hearing this after the Greek dances reminded me that Greek traditional music really is Middle Eastern music, and this piece doesn’t sound at all foreign to me. Klezmer isn’t far from that musical tradition either.

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Dropping out of (the) race

My last post really infuriated the “Con or Bust” bunch on Twitter and almost broke this blog’s (rather small) record for views in a day, so I think I’m on to something. Let’s push the envelope some more.

In the 1860s, slavery was abolished in the USA. In the 1960s, most laws mandating racial discrimination were struck down or repealed. By the 2060s, I hope the very idea of race will be on the trash heap of pseudoscience along with creationism and astrology. Sooner would be better.

My first encyclopedia claimed that the human species is divided into the Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid races and a bunch of sub-races. It rejected notions of racial superiority, but the biological subdivision of Homo sapiens was a scientific “fact.” Since then, scientists have found that there’s far more genetic variation within “races” than between them. The differences that supposedly define races are superficial things such as skin color and facial features.

In spite of this, many people have a deep investment in the notion of race. At most big companies, you’re expected to disclose your race, though you’re told it’s optional. When I worked at Harvard, there was an online form with a supposedly optional question about my race. I unchecked everything, and the website wouldn’t accept the form because I hadn’t answered the “optional” question. I reported this as a bug. As far as I know, it has never been fixed.

However, the form didn’t stop me from checking all the boxes, so I did that. Under the “one drop” theory of race, it’s almost certainly true that I belong to every “race” there is.

I try to avoid racial terms, though sometimes they’re an inescapable shorthand for appearance. But think about it: Have you ever seen a person whose skin is actually white or black and isn’t a corpse? Have you ever encountered anyone who isn’t a person of color? It would have to be the Invisible Man.

There are people who want to keep the idea of race alive because they think they’re the Master Race. They’re living rebuttals of their claim to intellectual and moral superiority; rebutting them is like beating a zombie horse that refuses to die. Then there are the people who push the notion of “racial identity”; they see people as representatives of their race rather than individuals and think that the most important form of diversity is diversity of looks. They manage to get a degree of intellectual respect, but it’s the same old poison in a new sugar coating. If you think you know what people are by looking at their skin, you don’t know them at all.

It takes work to break free of ways of thinking that pervade a culture. It can be hard to stop making assumptions about people based on their skin, but it allows discovering things about them that are much more interesting than their albedo.

So when they ask your race, just say “human.”