In recent days there has been a renewed focus on some genuinely shitty behaviour by science-fiction writers and others in the SF&F community. I don’t have a lot to say about the specifics because a) I literally don’t know anybody and b) it’s a good time to listen rather than suck oxygen. The discussion has rippled outwards as well and while the specific behaviour initially talked about revolved around the behaviour of male authors and predatory, harassing or emotionally abusive/exploitative behaviour to women, there is a wider question of power-dynamics and bullying behaviour.
Those broader questions have then touched on issues in the semi-recent past, including events like RaceFail from 2009 and the issues around Requires Hate that came to a head in 2015. Those in turn raise the issue of nested power dynamics, in a complex and international community where publishing has its own hierarchies & positions of power, social media and size of followers has another power dynamic and these play out with existing social divisions around wealth, class, language, sexuality, gender and ethnicity (and ethnicity within both national and international contexts).
It is a complex ethical space and at the same time the issue at hand is very simple: STOP BEING SHITTY TO OTHER PEOPLE & START TREATING PEOPLE AS PEOPLE NOT AS THINGS OR GAME PIECES. I say “simple” and even as I write I use a paraphrasing of Kant’s categorical imperative and in this context have to point out that philosophers long and appalling level of racism and sexism. A simple idea that we keep failing at in fractal like ways.
Part of the self-reference in the issues of both bad behaviour and power dynamics is how we (as a community and as individuals) respond to people within our community acting badly towards others. Assuming we aren’t talking about behaviour that amounts to criminality* then we are talking about behaviour that we can only discourage/punish by the means of social consequences. Social consequences (which could amount to simply not following somebody on Twitter any more to something more substantial) are themselves acts which employ varying degrees of power dynamics between people.
And that circles back to systemic biases, specifically whether shitty person A and shitty person B end up suffering different consequences for similar behaviour of if shitty person A is a person-of-colour/woman/trans/gay/etc and person B is a straight, cis American/British white man. One of the big issues with systemic biases is they can are easiest to identify in aggregate: they often function stochastically and when looked at case-by-case there are (particularly in the kinds of behaviour I’m talking about) sufficient differences between case X and case Y that the difference in consequence can be rationalised away (X was dumped by their agent because of X’s behaviour but then Y wasn’t… but then X had done i,ii,iii,& ix and Y had done ii,xi, &xii etc where each of these are non-trivial cases of genuinely bad behaviour to others).
In workplaces or in more formal settings like a convention, a rules based approach can add a quasi-legal framework to things. By codifying both behaviours and consequences it can be easier to track both and look for inequities as well as providing frameworks to ensure that people who have behaved badly are still treated as people. In practice though, that doesn’t happen and we also have very recent examples of such structures being used as an instrument of bullying and power plays. Rules and power structures can be weaponised by people who act in bad faith.
However, the alternative that we have without those frameworks is a situation where I can say with confidence that probably different kinds of people are treated inequitably in these situations because I know in advance that our communities have not magically transcended systemic biases or hundreds of years of class, racial and gender biases BUT would struggle to spot whether a given case is an example of that.
Complex thing is complex! I don’t have any solutions at the end of this but I do know that worst thing to do in the face of a big ugly complex thing in which people are suffering genuine hurt is to give up. Seeing first that something is both complex (see above) but also simple (stop being shitty to other people) is part of interrogating a problem**.
*[or behaviour that arguably does amount to criminality but which victims have substantial reasons not to want to involve law-enforcement for so many reasons.]
**[and yes, I’m aware that seeing things in terms of ‘problems’ is also a cognitive bias of my own because I like problem solving and yet that is also a way of turning people into abstract things. Recursive thing is recursive.]
ETA: I finished that post and went to check my mail and there was a newsletter essay by Alexandra Erin that addressed the topic better (because she’s a better writer 🙂) https://alexandraerin.substack.com/p/more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger I liked this paragraph:
“You can’t win at sadness. No one wins at sadness. If you go with sadness, that means the game is over. Sadness means you’re out of moves. Sadness means there is no convincing the other person or people that you were right all along, that what you did was fine. Sadness means the final death of your last hope of powering through and coming out the other side untouched and unscathed.”