The world of romance writing has fallen into a major dispute after an official ruling was made against author and advocate Courtney Milan apparently for criticising racist tropes in a book. News coverage here https://www.thewrap.com/romance-writers-courtney-milan-suspension-racist-mess/ I say “apparently” because the gist of the finding against Milan is very unclear in the report of the committee.
The committee’s report itself is confusingly written (you can read it here https://www.docdroid.net/qj8dh9a/ethics-committee-report-1119.pdf ) but as Milan herself has explained on Twitter, the findings were not made by the sitting members of the committee but a specially convened group to hear the complaint.
Apparently (and I’ll be using that word a lot) the RWA board decided that as Milan was an influential member of the ethics committee it would be improper for her fellow committee members to adjudicate the complaint and set up a group specifically to hear this one issue. I can see why the RWA might do that but the net effect creates a different appearance of impropriety: establishing a special committee just to convict Milan. Is that what occurred? There’s no way of knowing but the report itself is clumsy and poorly reasoned. I’ll come back to that.
The complaint itself was from an author and publisher of historical romance fiction. They had become embroiled on criticism of their work on social media and were feeling that they were under an unwarranted attack (you can read the complaint here https://www.docdroid.net/blNlrih/suzan-tisdale-formal-rwa-complaint.pdf ) Milan had specifically focused on aspects of a novel by one of the publisher’s editors. The novel featured as a key character a woman of Chinese and European descent. Milan herself is Chinese-American and also very skilled in dissecting the cliches of racial tropes in romance fiction and beyond.
The complaint alleges that, among other things:
‘In these tweets, Courtney alleges the book is racist, inaccurate, and that Kathryn Lynn Davis is a “fucking racist mess.”’
This claim is simply false and is refuted by the tweet that is screen-shotted in the complaint where Milan says “Someone sent me a link to a book written by the other editor, Kathryn Lynn Davis, and is a fucking racist mess.” While the phrasing could be clearer, it would be really hard to read that as anything other than Milan calling the book a racist mess rather than than the person.
But we are in the age of what we might call the transitivity of racism, where to say “X is racist” is taken as being synonymous with “the author of X is racist” with no admission of nuance or degrees or of how the nature of implication works. Yes, there is a chain of implication there but it is the EXACT same chain of implication that exists with all book criticism and reviews. If I say “book X is badly written” then there is a degree of implication that “Author Y or book X is a bad writer” but the two are not synonymous. Nor is this just me engaging in my usual pedantic nitpicking: this distinction of the difference between book and author is absolutely essential to the nature of reviews, reviewing and book criticism in general (indeed art criticism in general and food criticism in general). Without this distinction then all negative reviews would carry with them potential liabilities of a legal or code-of-conduct nature.
What we have seen repeatedly though, is a special demarcation placed around critiques of racism or sexism within artworks that somehow places them beyond the pale. So weirdly I can write a scathing review that attacks a book for cliched plot, weak dialogue, poor grammar, typos, misspellings, plot holes, confused genre boundaries, anachronisms, poor editing, poor character development, thin plotting, infodumping and a poorly designed cover but NOT for racism without generating a counter-outrage.
The Ethics Committee report itself is best described as a confusing mess. A good report should make clear the core aspects on which the findings have been made and should be sufficient to make clear to members what particular actions they should avoid in the future. In particular, a finding should not be of a kind that has a chilling aspect on speech or behaviour beyond that covered by the spirit of the ethics code or code of conduct. Put another way, people bound by the code that is being enforced shouldn’t have to guess what the essence of the ethical violation is.
I used the word ‘apparently’ a lot at the start and I believe there is a hug amount of scope in the finding for people to say ‘no, they were actually ruling against X,Y or Z’ in Milan’s actions. That, in itself, points to a massive weakness in the report.
The report details four allegations:
- (Section 6.1.1) Repeatedly or intentionally engaging in conduct injurious to RWA or its purposes.
- (Section 15.9.1) Repeatedly or intentionally engaging in any other acts of a violent, harassing (as defined in 22.214.171.124) or intimidating conduct that objectively threaten a member’s career, reputation, safety or well being. Specifically excluded from this section are exchanges of business information, true statement personal disagreements, honest discussions of books, non-RWA operated social media posts, and marketing materials.
- (Section 15.9.4) Board members shall not engage in or facilitate any discriminatory or harassing behavior toward RWA staff, members, Officers, Directors, meeting attendees, exhibitors, advertisers, sponsors, suppliers, contractors, or others in the context of activities relating to RWA.
- (Section 126.96.36.199) Repeatedly or intentionally making a member’s personal, private identifying information public with the intent of harming the other member’s career, reputation, or well-being.
The report specifically finds for Milan on points 2, 3 and 4 (although with some caveats). Notably, these are the more specific complaints were there is a substantive aspect to compare between the content of Milan’s Tweets and how the complainant characterises them. The more general point 1 is where the report finds against Milan and upholds the complaint.
Now it is of course possible to not breach ethical standards in particular but still breach those standards in general. A code of ethics or behaviour has to accept that human behaviour is complex and also that people may exploit rules to behave poorly to others while sticking to the letter of the law. However, when making a ruling of that nature (i.e. that there is a general breach while finding that there are no specific breaches) requires a substantial argument to be made. You can’t just vaguely wave at things and say ‘we don’t like this’. Why not? Because to do so provides no indication to other members what they can and can’t do within the ethical guidelines but also creates a circumstance where an ethics committee is likely to make inconsistent rulings in the future. Precedent matters.
At Mad Genius Club, Amanda Green’s take is that it was not so much the substance of Courtney Milan’s criticism that was the issue but the manner of them:
“Here’s the thing. She might have done all this with the best of intentions. But she did them in the wrong way. She should have known it would blow up. She reasonably should have foreseen complaints being filed. Most of all, she should have thought long and hard before hitting the post button with accusations phrased in such a way any reasonable person would know they would bring derision on the person they were aimed at.”
Now maybe that is EXACTLY what the committee was adjudicating i.e. it was not that Milan was critiquing the racist tropes in a book but that it was the general manner in which it was being done. That is an interesting argument and I can see why Amanda Green is looking at it that way and it could even be a very defensible ethical stance for a committee to make. They key issue would be that maybe such a stance could be generalisable (e.g. you could substitute a different critique of a book such as bad grammar and still say ‘it’s OK to attack a book’s grammar in this way but not in that way’ and so on). However, the report does NO SUCH THING and makes no such distinction (at least from what I can see).
We shouldn’t be surprised that the vocal advocates of free-speech are very equivocal about which speech and by whose speech should be free. To look at what the report does say on allegation 1 I find something very odd indeed:
‘In the matter of engaging in conduct injurious to RWA or its purposes(Section 6.1.1), the committee determined that Ms. Milan’s comments were in violation of the organization’s expressed purpose of creating a “safe and respectful environment” for its community of writers. Most particularly, the committee considered the legal phrase of “invidious discrimination,” defined as “By word or deed likely to arouse, inflame,or incur resentment or anger in others; tending to cause discontent, animosity, envy; words that created an unjust comparison or were unfairly discriminating,” as being applicable to this case.In addition, the committee determined that Section 6.1.1 is not qualified by Section 15.9.4 (noted below).’
I say “odd” because the paragraph starts with a core idea: ‘Ms. Milan’s comments were in violation of the organization’s expressed purpose of creating a “safe and respectful environment” for its community of writers.’ That’s the proposition that the rest of the paragraph is intended to support. What we might expect is a discussion of the term ‘respectful’, as that does offer a range of avenues for finding against a member in a ‘its not what you said it’s the way that you said it’ way.
Instead the finding rests on the legal term “invidious discrimination”. The phrasing is weasel worded and avoids saying that Milan was engaged in invidious discrimination but by its presence and by stating that it was applicable (and most applicable because it is the only principle cited to support the finding) the implication is that Milan did engage in “invidious discrimination”. So why be weasel worded about it? The section reads like the committee wanted to introduce the concept but not commit to it and that is no way to make a finding in a ethics committee report. You phrase things in that way if and only if you want to be able to back-track from it later. Specifically, you phrase things in that way if you believe that the committee itself might face some liability of its own if it overtly stated “Courtney Milian was engaged in invidious discrimination”.
That’s not the only possible meaning of course but that’s the nature of weasel wording, to allow for ambiguous readings. Perhaps they wanted to say that the RWA itself would be engaged in ‘invidious discrimination’ if they didn’t find against Milan. Perhaps. However, if that is what they wanted to say then it would have been easy enough to simply say exactly that. Again, it would be a complex argument to make but I can see how somebody might make that argument. However, as the committee did not make that argument, we are left none-the-wiser and that is itself a fundamental failing in the report.
The term itself can be defined as:
“Treating a class of persons unequally in a manner that is malicious, hostile, or damaging.”https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/invidious_discrimination
That’s just one definition of course and I am no lawyer. However, in every definition I have looked at and based on my (non-legal) understanding, it is very clear that while ‘invidious discrimination’ is a broad term designed to encompass many and varied kinds of discrimination, it necessarily implies that some CLASS OF PERSONS in general is being discriminated against. It is not a term that describes bullying of an individual as an individual but antagonistic behaviour to an individual that impacts on or is motivated by hostility to a group.
Put another way, you can’t claim “invidious discrimination” without stating what CLASS OF PERSONS is being discriminated against. Given that it is an almighty can of eldritch worms to summon from the depths of legalism in an ethics report. You simply can’t write a report citing the term and then not say who is being discriminated against in general. Is it authors? Romance editors? White people? Who? Should I leap to the conclusion that the committee meant white people but didn’t want to say that directly? I honestly don’t know but I can’t fault people for assuming that the committee did mean white people. I’ll have zero sympathy for whoever wrote that paragraph if they claim people are misreading it because it would take some skill to write something so full of dangling implications. An ethics committee report shouldn’t adopt the mannerism of a gossip column and slyly hint as mispropriety.
Nor is this the only example of wording in the report that might reasonably be called ‘snide’ but can definitely be called oddly unnecessary and open to interpretation. Take the finding on allegation 2 for example. Here the committee found for Courtney Milan but expressed themselves in a way to imply that is a technicality.
‘Specifically excluded from this section are exchanges of business information, true statement personal disagreements, honest discussions of books, non-RWA operated social media posts, and marketing materials),the committee finds with Ms. Milan, as it is presently unable to adjudicate postings on social media not operated by RWA. However, the committee was also made aware that Ms. Milan served on the Board when this exception was approved, and very likely understood she would be able to act in the manner she did, without being in violation of the code.’[my emphasis added]
What the flip is that last sentence trying to say? If it isn’t meant pejoratively or implying some broader improper behaviour then why is it there at all. The only none negative reading is that they are simply saying that as Milan helped approve the rules then she knew that her behaviour was within the rules — which is just a plain odd thing to say. The more likely implication is that it is a dig at Courtney Milan’s role on the ethics committee and her role in establishing the code of conduct. Either way, it really shouldn’t be in the report because either it was meant innocently (in which case is irrelevant but likely to be misread) or it wasn’t (in which case it is just malicious as it suggest a new allegation beyond the scope of the report).
I am sure there will be further fall-out from this. As a starting point the RWA is in an unenviable position of having to defend a poorly argued and poorly expressed committee finding on a complex issue. That is the worst possible outcome because the report is so badly written that it is open to quite diverse readings where the ambiguities can be exploited to claim it is saying something quite different to the actual gist of it.
The net effect though is encompassed in the headline. Maybe, the RWA really is not trying to rule against criticising books for racist content. However, given the ruling they published even if a member was to take it as “with the best of intentions but she did them in the wrong way” there is zero sense from the findings in where that boundary between the RIGHT way to say ‘this book is a racist mess’ and the WRONG way to say ‘this book is a racist mess’. The net effect is a chilling of speech, specifically around claiming that a book is racist. That’s an appalling result and a clear failing on the part of this ad-hoc ethics committee.
ETA Various links:
Alyssa Cole’s Tweets where I got the links to the documents etc
This blogpost has more RWA context https://wendythesuperlibrarian.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-call-is-coming-from-inside-house.html
According to K.Tempest Bradford, the RWA forums are shutting down discussion of the issue:
And some more context from Courtney Milan:
And File 770 has a good summary and round-up of reactions http://file770.com/courtney-milan-suspended-by-rwa-banned-from-leadership
ETA: And the RWA is now back-pedalling furiously:
And Cora provided in the comments this link that has a lot more background on the original source of the complaint: http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com/2019/08/racism-and-corporate-romance-buyer.html
Milan details some of the failures of procedure by the RWA:
John Scalzi pops up in this New York Post article on the on-going omnishambles https://nypost.com/2019/12/26/romance-writer-courtney-milan-suspended-over-racist-mess-claims/
After what must have been a less than great Christmas, the RWA board has replied to the controversy in a couple of Google Docs.
File 770 has a new round-up of recent developments http://file770.com/courtney-milan-controversy-decimates-rwa-leadership/
This post has extensive links and a timeline https://www.claireryanauthor.com/blog/2019/12/27/the-implosion-of-the-rwa
More evidence of the incident being a coup rather than a cock-up https://twitter.com/courtneymilan/status/1211369639965446144
A new statement from the RWA takes a stop-airing-dirty-washing tone while still saying nothing https://twitter.com/LorelieBrown/status/1211740591161131008