The fandom theme of the week for me seems to be on the topic of consent to be talked about. I’ll start with the absurd and work my way to the more subtle.
The absurd first of all.
Science fiction writer Richard Paolinelli kicked off my week with this tweet:
“Can @AusFedPolice tell me if @CamestrosF , a citizen of Australia, is violating Australian law, i.e. Chapter 33A-Unlawful Stalking, 359B(c)(ii) with his online attacks on myself, @jondelarroz and many other writers? He is attempting to ruin our ability to earn a living.”
This was so absurd and so counter to actual facts as to be laughable. However, the intent was clearly serious and I imagine Richard’s feelings are sincere, even if they are wholly at odds with his own behaviour.
Essentially Richard is not happy with me discussing him. Actually, I rarely do so and the most substantial discussion I’ve had about him was when he had attempted to engage me in a discussion (in the mistaken belief that I was either an agent of Mike Glyer or actually Mike Glyer).
It would be easy to dismiss Richard Paolinelli’s concerns because of his wider online behaviour but it is part of a spectrum of concerns around online discussion of others.
Mike Glyer has received more than his fair share of related complaints about him posting SFF news stories about people who don’t want to be covered by his site File770. Most notably many on the Sad Puppies side of the Puppy-Kerfuffle became increasingly hostile to Mike’s coverage. Again – easy to see their objections as absurd given their own behaviour, yet it isn’t only Sad Puppies. Reviewer and Shadow Clarke Jury member Jonathon McCalmont also had strong objections (again not well expressed) to being covered by File770.
In all of these examples, we have public comments being discussed publicly but the originators of the comments feeling as if there is either an intrusion into their life or a misuse of their comments.
Wayyyyyy over onto another side of this spectrum we have sealioning and harassment by trolls i.e. repeated, unwelcome and clearly intrusive attempts to engage a person in a discussion of what they said — typically done in bad faith or worse for the express purpose of trying to make somebody avoid saying anything for fear of being hassled.
I think there is a clear gulf between Mike’s news coverage and actual harassment. That doesn’t mean bloggers shouldn’t be mindful of when what they believe to be legitimate coverage of a person’s public comments have become distressing to that person but public discourse is an intrinsic good thing. It is simply not a viable ethical principle to only talk about the people who have given express consent to be talked about.
Skipping forward to the end of the week and there is a more interesting case that falls closer to being an ethical dilemma around related issues.
Rocket Stack Rank’s Eric Wong released a new feature at the review & review aggregation site entitled “Best SF/F by People of Color 2015-2016” which you can read about here and here.
Now personally I don’t like claims of “Best X…” whether it is in lists like this or in anthology titles. My dislike is moderated somewhat by the fact they can’t possibly be an objective assessment of what is best and hence readers know to take “best” with a hefty pinch of salt. Even so, I wish people wouldn’t do it and use a title that better reflect what the collection is (e.g. ‘our most liked…’, ‘our favourite…’). Having said that RSR did explain the actual process they had done to aggregate the list.
One reviewer, Charles Payseur (of Quick Sip Reviews) was unhappy about RSR list. His objections were manifold – a general objection to RSR’s approach, the nature of such a list being built mainly from reviews by white authors and finally, the use of his reviews to help compile the list.
Which is interesting on multiple levels. I think it is obvious that Payseur has:
- Every right to be unhappy with his work being used to create the list.
- Every right to ask not be used in this way.
- Every right to ask not to be used at all by RSR.
However, that is not saying a lot. The question is what ethical obligation would RSR have to comply?
I think the answer is none but it is close.
Payseur has gone onto expound what he sees as the ethics of consent in these circumstances but reading through what he has written, I find it hard to find a coherent principle at work. That’s OK – I do a lot of thinking out loud directly to the world also. However, I don’t feel I understand Payseur’s objections well enough to paraphrase them correctly.
However, I can see two related ideas that could be in play (but I’m neither saying these are Payseur’s or not Payseur’s)
- Exploitation of Payseur’s name and/or reputation to give credence legitimacy to RSR’s list.
- Exploitation of Payseur’s work (as in what he has created and also his labour) to create the list.
These are both stronger points than simply not wanting to be talked about.
Of the two, I think the first is the stronger objection but looking at how RSR present things, I think they stayed on the right side of an imaginary ethical line – I don’t see anything that looks like they are implying the reviewers they aggregated endorsed the list or that they are using the reputation of reviewers like Payseur to promote the list. Having said that, it is safer to err on the side of caution and I think it is here that RSR is most right in conceding to Payseur’s request.
This first point also relates to some of the ethical issues around the Sad Puppy 4 recommendation lists (e.g. Alistair Reynolds asking not to be included) and the 2017 Dragon Awards (e.g. various authors asking for their finalist status to be withdrawn). The line here is around consent to be associated with a thing or being ‘forced’ to participate in a thing.
The second point really comes down to fair use. Reviews, criticism, critiques even public attacks necessarily derive from the work of others. I literally exploit stupid things Vox Day says to generate column inches – heck, I’m exploiting the work of both Payseur, Hullender and Wong in this very column! That is the nature of public discourse – there isn’t a way of having a discourse that isn’t built upon what others have said.
In RSR’s case, we have a somewhat different form of discourse: aggregation of data. Now it should hardly be a surprise given many of my posts that I’m very much in favour of seeing aggregating derived data as a legitimate fair use of other’s work for the purpose of public discourse. I’ll concede that is different in style from a review or a critique but it is also important because it provides insights into a field. It is by its nature transformative and is by no means ‘free’ and requires its own labour.
I don’t think it requires the consent of those who create public information if the aggregation is genuinely transformative (and respectful of privacy and other ethical considerations). Not only that requiring or expecting consent for such activity would be detrimental to public discourse. It’s not just RSR, its a wide range of other activities such as the Fireside Report, that looks at what is produced by wider fandom and identify trends or other underlying values.
Have a fully thought through all of that? Nope – happy to revise my opinion accordingly but it is a discussion worth having. There clearly is a spectrum of behaviour here and consent does play a role but so does the more general good of public discourse.