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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