Having face-to-face discussions helps to understand how people are thinking when they want something that looks like a really bad idea. It may not make it look more sensible, but it’s valuable for formulating an answer in a way that addresses their concerns.
From a recent conversation about treating the content of speech as “harassment,” I can see what some of the advocates are trying to do and what they’re missing. Others might be coming from a different start, of course, but this is what I was seeing.
The place they’re starting from is the assumption that people’s reactions can provide the basis of a code of conduct, because the hurt that people experience from others’ words is real hurt. If someone I respect says I’m being an idiot, it hurts. If they’re right, the knowledge that I was and others recognize it hurt. If they’re wrong, the realization that their judgment doesn’t live up to my image hurts. If someone I don’t respect says I’m an idiot, I might feel anger, which is a kind of pain. In some cases, I might also feel fear. This last point was stressed in the conversation I had. I’m familiar enough with it myself, from the harassment campaign I experienced in the late nineties.
Another discussion with some of the same people was on how people think in narratives, affecting how they evaluate actions and events. If you think of a speech code as part of a campaign to keep people from being intimidated and distressed at conventions, it can seem good and admirable. If you think of it as the first step down the road to enforced conformity, not so much so. In fact, it can take on aspects of both story lines at once. You have to consider all the consequences of an action, not just the ones that support one worldview.
I can agree with this much: When people say things that cause undeserved distress, anger, or fear, they deserve to be rebuked. In cases like this they’re being unjust, and even if their target is strong enough not to feel bothered, it’s wrong. The problem comes when you try to use people’s reactions as the basis of a code of conduct.
First, you have to separate warranted from unwarranted hurt. If someone entrusted with selling other people’s merchandise shorted the sales figures, then calling them on it will hurt them, not just emotionally but in their business reputation. A code which prohibits humiliating and embarrassing people would prohibit making their actions public, and thus leave the victim with less recourse. This is a real-life example, by the way; I publicly called the perpetrator out on this, and one person verbally attacked me for it. By the “humiliation is harassment” standard, the cheat was the victim, I was the harasser, and the person cheated was expected to stay quiet. (This was over 10 years ago; I’m not bringing out any names now.)
If a convention policy just concerns itself with whether someone feels hurt, then people are prohibited from telling painful truths. If it gets into whether they deserve it or not, then the concom has to become the judge of complicated debates.
Another problem with basing a policy on people’s emotional pain is that it encourages playing the victim. The person who’s strong enough not to feel hurt — or stubborn enough not to show it — has no case to make. The person who’s offended by everything can use that as a weapon. It’s to your advantage to be hurt, or at least to look that way.
The people I was talking with stressed the cases where any reasonable person would agree the speaker was a complete jerk. As the ones running the con, they wouldn’t apply a policy in a way that let people play the victim. I’m sure they don’t intend to. But the problem is that once you set a policy, you have to stick by it or look bad. With weapon policies, you can’t just ban weapons for the people who are too stupid to handle them safely; you have to apply the same policy to everyone. The same will be true with speech policies. You can’t just apply them to the jerks and let your friends speak freely.
The problem isn’t just that people inevitably play favorites; it’s that you can’t know what’s really going on in people’s heads. You can’t base an objective policy on people’s feelings. Even if you’re completely impartial and unbiased, you just don’t have access to the knowledge you need.
This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about the jerks; it means that you have to pick the right criteria. I tried to make this point in the conversation, not as clearly as I would have liked. Persistently trying to talk with or stay close to a person who doesn’t want it is certainly a legitimate basis for sanctions. So is being disruptive or physically intimidating.
Speech codes just aren’t necessary to what most fans legitimately want in order to feel safe. They’re a lazy solution, encouraged by the handful of people in fandom who really do want to suppress ideas they don’t like. We can do better than that at creating an environment that’s safe for all, including people with unpopular opinions.