Filk is a community more than a musical style. It’s people in different countries drawn together by the love of songs which are clever, which look toward the future, which examine many possibilities for the world. I’ve found myself as much at home at filk conventions in Canada, Germany, and England as in the United States. Many things about filk have changed over the years and will keep changing, but we should always keep this.
Filk is a part of science fiction and fantasy fandom, which loves to explore ideas. This means discussion and debate. It means hearing ideas which may make us uncomfortable and being able to think people are seriously wrong without treating them as outcasts. Fandom has been a stronghold of liberalism, in the sense I cited in my last post: “valuing tolerance, freedom, and reason rather than orthodoxy, authoritarianism, and tradition.” (This has nothing to do with the Democratic and Republican parties, neither of which is liberal in that sense today.)
But lately we’ve seen an alarming push toward illiberalism in fandom, toward treating anyone who disagrees with the orthodoxy as an enemy and replacing argumentation with name-calling. I think the push is coming from the educational system, which too often claims that people need to be protected from offensive-sounding words and confines free speech to tiny “free speech zones.” People coming out of it are used to an atmosphere of polite intimidation and the risk of being disciplined for unpopular opinions (see the website of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for many examples).
Applying bad ideas in a good cause can make them look good. Fandom has the very legitimate concern of making sure, as far as it’s possible, that no one is harassed, threatened, or intimidated at conventions. Sometimes people are afraid to complain, and sometimes people on convention committees ignore legitimate concerns. The people running things can’t always know what really happened, and many of us are poorly qualified to be impartial judges. Really serious matters need to go to hotel security or the police. The committee’s role is to set appropriate standards and make it clear that it doesn’t accept failure to abide by them. Sometimes this means banning people from certain events or kicking them out entirely.
What it doesn’t mean is guaranteeing safety from being uncomfortable, policing personal preferences, or arbitrating the acceptability of viewpoints. Convention policies can’t do it without killing fandom’s openness. Yet FilKONtario defines harassment to include “any objectionable act, comment, or display that demeans, belittles, or causes personal humiliation or embarrassment.” The 2016 British filk convention, Con2bil8, has gone further:
If anyone makes you feel uncomfortable, discriminates against you, or exhibits behaviour and/or language which you find offensive towards either yourself or anyone else, we, as a committee, would like you to understand that we will not find it acceptable, and will take immediate action, up to, and including, expulsion from Convention areas.
“Immediate action” suggests the person accused won’t even get a hearing. Since being “found offensive” is in the mind of the accuser, accusation equals guilt. Enforcement, of course, has to be selective, or claims and counterclaims of offense will decimate the membership. I don’t expect anyone would kick me out of a con for my song “No Trump Contract,” which is intentionally offensive toward a certain presidential candidate. I’m not so confident about what might happen at a con with a zero-offense policy if I sang “Barack Obama” (to the tune of “Mary O’Meara”).
There are issues of genuine harassment at conventions. I’m aware of one persistent problem in the past at a large Massachusetts convention. Filk conventions haven’t encountered a lot of serious problems in my experience; their small size doesn’t grant true harassers the kind of anonymity they thrive on. I’ve heard of an incident at one European filk con which would have been a matter for the police in the US, though Europeans have a different view on some things. Other than that, the only harassment problems I know of have come from outside the con.
It’s difficult for con committees to deal with such issues, since their eyes can’t be everywhere. What they can do is set a standard, by defining policies that address actual harassment rather than protecting people from being offended. The policy in ConCertino 2015’s program book does this:
If people clearly indicate they want to be left alone, leave them alone. Repeated or flagrant violations may be answered by banning offenders from some areas or functions, or revoking membership without a refund. Threatening or illegal actions may be reported to the hotel or to law enforcement. If your actions step over generally accepted personal boundaries, you need to have clear consent first.
I drafted that text, and it went through some revision by the committee. The emphasis is on respecting personal boundaries. OVFF addresses similar points, in some ways more clearly than ConCertino:
Harassment of any kind is not tolerated. If someone tells you “no” or asks you to leave them alone, your business with them is done.
Your right not to be harassed is not a right not to be offended. All of us have different things that we find offensive. If you are offended, the best solution may be for you to walk away from the person who offends you. Should that person pursue you and continue to offend you, that could be harassment.
To the extent that harassment is a real problem — and I hope it’s not very much — it needs everyone’s involvement. If you see someone apparently being bothered, you should probably start by asking if there’s a problem. It’s easy to misunderstand banter between friends. If the answer is yes, then a pointed glare and quiet “Do you mind?” to the offending party may be the best way to handle the situation. The greater part by far of harassment at filk conventions is from people outside the convention; there have been some legendary events which I wish I’d gotten good accounts of for Tomorrow’s Songs Today. The concom has no authority over the bullies and drunks from somebody else’s wedding or convention. Letting the harasser know that they don’t have an isolated target goes a long way, even in those cases. Sometimes it’s necessary to talk to the hotel. Sometimes the hotel won’t do anything, because the offending group is too good a customer, and then having a good lawyer at the convention can work wonders. (I think the con in question was OVFF and the lawyer was Murray Porath, but I can’t find an account of it.)
Some people like to “lawyer” con rules, to find creative ways of violating their intent while staying within the letter. It’s tempting to respond with rules broad enough to let the con kick anyone out. Maybe the UK con has such a problem person, and that’s the reason for the sweeping rules; I haven’t been to one in that country for over a decade, so I wouldn’t know. But categorizing everything as “harassment” is an inept way to do it, since it casts a stigma on people penalized for lesser violations. Suppose, for example, it’s necessary to eject someone from the main hall for persistently talking loudly during performances. That’s rude, but most attendees wouldn’t consider it as bad as imposing unwanted sexual advances. Under the FKO and Con2bil8 policies, though, since it offends people, the violation is “harassment.” Convention organizers usually try to avoid talking about the details of harassment charges, largely because the victims of real harassment often would rather not make their situation a public issue, so all that we’d hear might be that this person was kicked out of the main hall for harassment. The offender would suffer damage to their reputation out of proportion to the offense.
The right solution is to have rules which give the concom leeway but don’t create an atmosphere of intimidation. The key point is to focus on disallowing disruptive and harmful actions. The ConCertino and OVFF policies show it is possible to do this, as do numerous other convention policies. When a sledgehammer is your only tool, everything looks like a fly.
Let’s keep working at making everyone at filk conventions as safe as possible from actual harassment, and not give in to authoritarian temptations.