Why I won’t attend the NH Liberty Forum

I would have liked to register for the New Hampshire Liberty Forum this coming February. They always have interesting speakers, and I run into people I haven’t seen in a long time. Unfortunately, the Free State Project, which is organizing the event, has made it an unreasonable choice to take. They require all attendees to waive all claims of liability against FSP, even if its negligence kills people.
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GAFilk’s harassment policy

GAFilk’s harassment policy isn’t as bad as FilKONtario’s, but it does have its problems. It defines harassment as follows:

Harassment includes harmful verbal comments, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of concerts, circles, or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

There’s some circularity: Harassing photography is harassing and Grumpy Cat is grumpy, but that doesn’t actually tell us anything. The inclusion of “following” (not even “harassing following”) must be a mistake; at the end of the concerts, everyone except the first person out of the room would be guilty of harassment. “Stalking” covers whatever following can be legitimately prohibited. But I’ll grant that those are just careless wording.

The big problem, as with FilKONtario, is regulation of speech. What constitutes “harmful verbal comments”? If you say you don’t like a song or performance, that might be “harmful.” In practice, “harmful” usually means “unpopular.” Worse, as I’ve noted before, that kind of prohibition can shelter actual harassment. If you warn people that someone is dangerous or untrustworthy, that’s certainly harmful to their reputation, and they can use the con’s policy to intimidate you.

Is this really worth worrying about? Shouldn’t we trust the concom to enforce the policy reasonably, even if the wording is poor? It is, because certain disturbing trends in society shouldn’t spread to fandom. In the academic world especially, we’ve seen speech restrictions that are intolerant in both their phrasing and implementation. Bergen Community College tried to make a professor undergo psychiatric evaluation for posting a picture of his daughter in a Game of Thrones t-shirt. The University of Wisconsin-Stout threatened to bring criminal charges against a professor for putting up a Firefly poster outside his office door. There are 4300 or more signatures on an online petition to ban Bill Maher from speaking on the Berkeley campus. I read a post recently on LiveJournal that claims the word tolerance doesn’t “mean what you think it means” if you think it extends to views you seriously oppose. But it does mean that, Inigo, or it means nothing. If conventions enact rules against comments that are “harmful,” “belittle,” or “cause personal embarrassment,” then it’s only a matter of time before they’re used to silence opinions someone doesn’t approve of.

I’ve never attended GAFilk, since it’s a long trip in winter, though I’ve heard many good things about it. As a participant in the filk community, I’m simply concerned with the tendency of cons to impose speech codes. At ConCertino, we’ll be doing all we can to keep the environment safe, and this includes making sure people feel free to talk about problems.

The thinking behind fannish speech codes

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.

DFDF 2014

DFDF, Das Frühlingsfest der Filksmusik, is a very small but energetic filk convention in northern Germany. Usually I prefer to go to FilkContinental, the fall convention, because more of my German friends go there, but I also wanted to visit Vienna, which is much nicer in May than late September. DFDF has its own features; it’s in a hotel which is much more comfortable, if not as atmospheric, as the medieval castle in which FilkContinental used to be hosted, and the town it’s in is very nice. (FilkContinental will be in a new location this year.)

The guests of honor were Pavlov’s Duck (Peredar and Thesilée), who provided lots of fun with bells and duck calls as well as good music.

I arrived from Vienna on Thursday so I’d have time to settle in, and a few others arrived that day. I offered to help out but never quite managed to be there when there was stuff to be done.

Pavlov's Duck at DFDFA lot of my favorite people were at the con: Alexa, Sib, Franklin, Volker, Steve, Katy, Eva, Rafael, and others. I was sad that Ju and Crystal couldn’t make it. Programming was relatively light. One of the most unusual features was the “Aquapella” singing session at the pool, complete with laminated lyric sheets. We sang some rounds, including one with lyrics improvised on the spot, and attempted a bit of barbershop harmony.

Franklin Gunkelman and Steve Macdonald, DFDF auctionThe auction, which helps support the convention, raised an impressive 1,334 euros, an average of more than 30 euros per person. I didn’t bid on anything, since I didn’t want to have more stuff in my luggage coming home, but I donated some New Hampshire maple sugar candy. The committee arranged with the hotel to let people pre-order a buffet dinner on any or all of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. This worked out very well, since it let us get back to the convention faster than ordering from the menu would have allowed.

My concert set on Sunday included “Con Chair’s Song,” “The Hare and the Hedgehog,” “Der Besenmacher,” “Paperless,” Kari Maaren’s “Kids These Days,” and “Jalapeño.” I discovered how enthusiastic this crowd was when I was asked, for the first time in my life, to do an encore.

Not everything scales down for a small convention. You still have to negotiate the hotel contract, make arrangements with the guest of honor, assemble a program, get people registered, and make sure everything happens smoothly at the convention. Highest thanks to the committee for all their work, as well as to Volker for running sound.

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Another approach to convention harassment policy

Barry Gold recently sent me a sketch of some text for a convention harassment policy, with permission to quote it here. He says it’s just a draft which he and Lee worked up, but it’s helped to clarify in my mind just how seriously speech-code policies go wrong; not only do they impose restrictions which are contrary to fandom’s spirit of open discussion, they may actually make it harder to act against harassment. Here’s what he sent me:

We’ve been having a discussion about this on the LASFS’s Facebook group, and getting feedback that some women are too nervous to come right out and say “No.”

I think we need to add some empowerment to the start:

You have the right to say “No.”
You have the right to say “Stop.”
You have the right to say “Go away!”

If the person doesn’t seem to hear the first time, say it louder. You have the right to say it as loud as needed. Scream it at the top of your voice, to get attention from other people in the room.

Don’t bother with subtlety. Subtlety is wasted on fans.
Don’t bother with politeness. Politeness is wasted on fans.
Fans are, on average, less good at social skills than mundanes. That’s part of why we are here: Fandom is more tolerant of our inability to guess what other people are thinking.

Just come right out and say it. It’s allowed. We’re not in Mundania any more {, Toto}. Stand in front of a mirror and practice saying, “No” and “Stop” and “Go away” until it comes out easily.

Then, if something happens at a convention or a club meeting or any other fannish event that makes you uncomfortable, use those words. Think of them as magic spells: you must use those exact words or the spell won’t work.

If you can’t bring yourself to say, “No,” maybe you should consider teaming up with somebody who will say it for you.

Whether this is the right text depends on the convention. It would be overkill for a small convention with no history of problems, but could be appropriate for a larger one. I’m more interested here in the approach than in fine-tuning the policy.

The speech-code approach bans conduct that will “cause offense,” or any comment that “demeans, belittles, or causes personal humiliation or embarrassment.” People who are too nervous to say “no” are very likely to see this as applying to them. They may think that if they respond vocally and indignantly to mistreatment, the concom won’t look kindly on them, especially if the pest has strong connections in fandom or gives the impression that he does.

The con committee can’t be everywhere. Its members usually aren’t trained in evaluating testimony. It can ban people, but it needs to go to the hotel or police to enforce a ban. On the other hand, a person on the spot can sometimes dissuade a pest with some calm but firm words. Those words damn well should cause personal humiliation and embarrassment if the pest deserves it.

Every convention attendee should help to make the convention welcoming for all its members. Intervening is something many of us (including comcom members) aren’t much good at, but whatever efforts we can make will do more good than draconian policies enforced by the concom.

Update: One further thought, inspired by a comment in rasff. “Politeness is wasted on fans” certainly isn’t true. “Politeness is wasted on rude people” is more defensible, but even there courtesy can often defuse a situation. If the response you get proves that it really was wasted, then escalate as necessary.

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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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Idea for a convention harassment policy

Harassment policies at SF and filk conventions should be simple rather than complicated, should address harassment rather than hurt feelings, and should be clear without forcing the con committee into an untenable position.

Something like 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.”

There’s a lot of subtlety in getting the right wording, but I think this covers something close to the right ground. It won’t satisfy the people who never want to hear anything that makes them uncomfortable; I don’t intend it to.