A post I could subtitle more in-conclusions about bad behaviour.
In the midst of the on-going (and increasingly free-floating) discussion about poor behaviour in the science fiction community, the topic of Lou Antonelli calling the police about Worldcon Guest of Honour David Gerrold in the midst of the 2015 debarkle came up. The incident was cited as an example because the immediate consequences for Antonelli were seen as quite mild by some, especially because of his wider pattern of behaviour. I’m not going to re-prosecute the ins-and-outs of that, especially because of my own less-than-great history with Antonelli. However, it had an element to it that I thought was relevant when it comes to actions and consequences. It is an element that corresponds with how some conflicts within SF&F communities are characterised.
I would suggest that in many of the dialogues I’ve seen two contrasting framings are used. One is in terms of war and diplomacy and the other is in terms of criminal justice. In the preceding paragraph I already used a couple of terms that are least slightly loaded to each one i.e. “conflict” and “prosecute”.
In the specific Antonelli-Gerrold case, it can be cast as part of the Puppies-v-The Hugos as a conflict and the response to Antonelli’s actions as a means of de-escalation and re-building bridges between factions (type 1: war and diplomacy) versus seeing it in terms of Antonelli’s breach of the rules (formally in terms of a code of conduct and broader social rules of behaviour, as well as him actually involving the police). Again, just using this to illustrate what I mean and how the framings impact thinking — we’ve gone over the details (and later misbehaviour) of Antonelli enough.
Both the type 1: war/diplomacy framing and type 2: criminal-justice framing really do have relevance and what they also have are implications about how to draw a line under an event. The story for the first is there was a big conflict and it ended with a truce or the two factions splitting irrevocably or an overwhelming victory etc. In the case of a criminal-justice framing the story is the person did a bad thing and then received a just punishment for what they did. The coda to both is not ‘and everybody lived happily ever after’ but ‘and then we all moved on’.
In reality nothing is so final. Intra-community conflicts exhaust themselves rather than coming to decisive ends. There aren’t formal leaders or even clear boundaries between groups and there aren’t actually truces. Similarly, while breaches of formal codes of conduct can have formal consequences, a lot of shitty behaviour results in in-formal consequences i.e. people making decisions that aren’t guided by a neat set of rules. An author might behave in a really shitty way but if their publisher doesn’t want to dump then, there’s no court of appeal to which people can demand that they be dumped. So the consequences to shitty behaviour will never fall equitably.
In particular, we have a current situation where there is a major central SF&F community with major conventions, modes of communication and relationships with major publishers, editors, agents and other movers and shakers but also a bigger (but more diffuse) world beyond that. If I may cite a different name, our old pal Jon Del Arroz, when his overtly harassing behaviour became apparent, he was already in the midst of cutting ties with the mainstream community. That was a calculated move and part of a particularly cultish approach among the alt-right of making themselves ‘less fragile’ i.e. removing those aspects of their lives where people who expect normal standards of behaviour could enforce them with social sanction. The ‘you can’t sack me if I already quit’ attitude is a means of avoiding the consequences of poor behaviour.
So neither law nor war are entirely appropriate framings. I’m not the metaphor police, obviously we will all continue to use them but I think both can distort our expectations of a definitive conclusion to an incident. A given shitty-person hasn’t ‘served their time’ because they weren’t actually a criminal and didn’t actually have a sentence handed down. A big kerfuffle was X number of years ago but there wasn’t actually a peace-treaty, nor should everything that was said or done be treated as if it was distinct from personal behaviour.
Oh, I’ve got this far and this is where I should start building a case for a third point of view. Surprise! I don’t have one and I did warn you there would be a lack of a conclusion. However, some un-cohesive points.
- Harm reduction is a better model for thinking of consequences that justice or punishment. What is the problem with X’s behaviour? Where and how they mis-use whatever power and influence they have?
- The above is also a better way of judging whether somebody really has learned from their past ‘mistakes’ or ‘done the work’. Is the person now avoiding the situations where they act out? [In Antonelli’s case he acts out, then apologises and then quits social media for a bit and then…gets into the same cycle again later. Without making any ethical judgements, it’s pretty clear that social media and social media conflicts aren’t a healthy place for him.]
- No individual should feel that they need to place themselves at a position of risk out of a desire to show forgiveness, to give somebody a second chance or because others claim that somebody is a reformed character.
- Nobody should feel obliged to purchase or consume or promote the work of somebody whose past bad behaviour put you off their work in the first place. There’s not a statute of limitations on that other than your own feelings.
- Nobody should feel like they need to stay silent about why they are avoiding a given person or not purchasing their work or avoiding a given con, publisher, magazine because that venue promotes that person. That’s not the same as demanding a secondary boycott of a given venue (and that’s not me saying that nobody should ever demand a secondary boycott of a given venue either).
- But…honesty matters. Making stuff up or inciting fears or spreading unfounded rumours isn’t healthy for a community regardless of who they are about. Pragmatically, a false or exaggerated story about a bad-actor also provides cover for them and helps them (or their supporters) with the ‘reverse victim’ aspect of DARVO.
- Community self-honesty matters as well. Racism, sexism, bias and petty motives do play a role in these kinds of cases and some situations may have intractably complex power dynamics. We need to interrogate our biases and motives but not at the expense of letting abusive people harm others. If we respect the agency an humanity of people who are being abusive then we should not let them continue to be abusive!
That’s the closest I can get to a conclusion: treat everybody as people and not as things.
As always, this is thinking out loud and not intended as authoritative wisdom. Contrary views on any of this welcome. I’ve used Antonelli and Arroz as examples because they are fairly clear cut situations but I’d rather avoid getting into the weeds of who did what where unless it is pertinent to the broader issues eg. there’s a question about the power difference between Antonelli & Gerrold which is relevant but the question of whether Antonelli ‘swatted’ Gerrold or not isn’t relevant (either way it was a dangerous and irresponsible thing).