Filkers can do better

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.

Dandelion logo from FilKONtario siteFilk 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.

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Posted in General. Tags: , . 11 Comments »

11 Responses to “Filkers can do better”

  1. Barry Gold Says:

    We are (or should be) back to “No means no. Stop means stop. Go away means go away.”

    Possibly with some clarifying language and a reminder to those who feel harrassed that “You have the right to say No, Stop, or Go away as the situation warrants, and to repeat it more loudly if those around do not notice.”

  2. nancylebovitz Says:

    Any thoughts about songs? I never liked “Have Some Madeira, M’dear”– it’s clearly about sex without consent, and I’m glad I didn’t hear it at the last Clam Chowder concert. At the same time, it’s not personal harassment.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      I wrote about that song in Tomorrow’s Songs Today. With the right audience, where it’s understood as a parody of the old songs about music-hall villainy (to use a phrase that recently occurred in Girl Genius) and not as approval of the actions, I don’t have a problem with it. However, I despise the practice of “madeiraing” neos in filk circles. It’s pretty much dead now, and I like to think I had a hand in killing it. (By a general expression of disapproval, not by banning it.)

  3. Bill Roper Says:

    I think the con that you’re thinking of was a one shot “DragonCon” (not the one in Atlanta, but in Louisville) where Anne McCaffrey was the guest. Gretchen and I were there dealing, those many years ago.

  4. thnidu Says:

    This makes good sense to me.

  5. Karl-Johan Norén Says:

    I very much agree on that there are good and bad codes of conduct, but my impression on your examples is exactly the opposite of yours.

    The Con2bil8 code is quite wide, but it gives the concom the widest possible set of actions, and signals that the concom must act. Yes, it requires the faith that the concom can be trusted to act fairly, but this is a small con, so I don’t view that as a trouble. The code doesn’t require banning on first offense, it only gives the concom that option.

    I find the ConCertino code, however, to be deeply flawed. First, it is only a breach of the code if and only if a party explicitly tells the other that they want to be left in peace. Trouble here is that many women have been conditioned to suck it up, don’t cause trouble, and hope it goes away on its own (and the way many cons have dealt with harassment the last few years has further reinforced that). Second, it pretty much requires repeated violations by the same party before it can kick in. Third, what is “generally accepted personal boundaries”? Cons are in many ways fluid and norm-breaking events: we are used to setting and enforcing our own rules (unwritten and built on tradition), but that also means that they can be arcane and appear arbitrary to outsiders. It also doesn’t indicate a line of authority, or that the authority must act.

    The OVFF code is also flawed, perhaps even worse. The authority problem is still there. It specifically tells groups that suffer from continual low-grade harassment to suck it up. (My personal theory why women with red hair are considered passionate and hot-tempered is that they suffer from permanent low-grade harassment. No single incident is enough to warrant a response, but it never stops.) It specifically advises people to move away from things they find offensive, thus codifying the “suck it up” culture, and placing the onus on the offended and likely disadvantaged party to avoid the offender, instead of the other way around.

    Last, I imagine cons could toss out or censure directly disruptive members before harassment policies came in, and they can continue to do so now as well. Thus I view your example of the loud talker as a red herring. That said, if the loud talker eg only did so during times when women (or people of colour, or redheads, or other groups) sang, I’d deem that harassment.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      First of all, thanks for your comments. I was hoping to get more input from the people who favor the policies I criticized, rather than just agreement with me. Debate is valuable.

      Concoms have to receive complaints. Even the Con2bil8 code says just that they’ll act after complaints. If we have to guess when people don’t like the interactions they’re in, without any outward sign, we’d kill all the fluidity and norm-breaking you rightly say is a part of fandom. Saying “I’ll kill you for that” may be a joke or a threat. If the person who’s addressed takes it as a joke as far as we can see, we can’t assume they’re actually “sucking it up.”

      A policy that says the concom must act is unworkable. As I said, our eyes can’t be everywhere and we don’t have the knowledge to judge every situation. A concom that says it will “take immediate action” in response to every complaint inevitably has to overreach.

      OVFF doesn’t say anywhere that harassment is acceptable. It appears you simply disagree with OVFF’s statement that being offended isn’t the same as being harassed.

      I find a number things offensive in the current culture. Am I part of the “suck it up” culture because I don’t spend all my time engaging them? Would I be better off if I took all those things as personal harassment? The FilKONtario and Con2bil8 codes offend me; should I go there anyway and then charge them with harassment?

      It appears from your last paragraph that if someone disrupted only my concert, you wouldn’t regard that as harassment, because it’s not obviously directed at a group. I find that at least a little offensive. I can react by saying you’re harassing me, or I can just say that you’re wrong. The latter may be “sucking it up,” but it’s more conducive to communication.

      • Bill Roper Says:

        The language in the OVFF code (which was taken from the Windycon code that I helped write) was added explicitly to deal with some specific cases that had occurred recently at the con. The particular example I have in mind was where someone claimed that they were being harassed because someone was wearing a particular t-shirt in the Con Suite. In the particular case at hand, I believe that they were justified in finding the t-shirt offensive, but I couldn’t view it as harassment without not just *stepping* onto a slippery slope, but grabbing the toboggan and going for a ride.

      • Karl-Johan Norén Says:

        If someone comes to the concom and says that they witnessed or suffered harassment at the con, then yes, I say the concom must act. It need not imply that an action like a warning or a ban must be made at the end, but the claim must be investigated and documented. If the code of conduct gives any leeway to the committee (or other designated party) here, you might just as well skip having a code altogether.

        I very much agree that harassment and being offensive are two different things, and that is one of the things that someone investigating or acting on a complaint must be aware of. However, by placing the distinction within the code, you signal to anyone who felt harassed that there is a large amount of actions someone can take against them that the committee will not act against. The code of conduct’s role is not to act as law with graduations and exceptions, but as an easy-to-understand guideline for members on acceptable behaviour, and instructions on what one should do in case of harassment (where to report or find help), and above all give confidence to a person who has suffered harassment that they will be listened to and helped.

        I think you misunderstood my last point. It wasn’t that harassment can’t be made against a single person (it obviously can). It was that not all disruptive behaviour need be harassment, and that cons have had to deal with all sorts of disruptive behaviour earlier without recourse to a code of conduct or policy on harassment. As I understand it, filk cons have had rules on acceptable behaviour in circles and concerts long before the issue with code of conducts appeared.

        Last, I didn’t mention it in my first comment, but I must thank you for helping to kill the Madeira custom. I wouldn’t have any problem (apart from finding it in bad taste) if someone sang it in a filk circle, but when used by a group directly addressed against a new member of the community it just sounds horrible.

        • Gary McGath Says:

          If the code intends only that all claims will be investigated, it could be phrased better. Even there, I would not want to provide any guarantees that the con committee might not be able to fulfill. The most we can say is that we’ll listen to all complaints and try to treat them with the seriousness they deserve. Even police departments can’t guarantee they’ll take action on every report, and they have a lot more resources than con committees do.


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