Neither Law nor War

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).

7 thoughts on “Neither Law nor War

  1. So here’s the thing, I dislike both framings here at least in the context of the SciFi/Fantasy community, in addition to in most areas of dialogue. A quick disclaimer: I’m not a writer, nor am I ever going to become one, and my place in the community is mostly that of a consumer, considering I’m fairly certain my blog is mostly just an exercise in satisfying my need to talk about what I read – so I’m not really “part” of this community.

    But both framings are bad for the simple reason that the potential outcomes they suggest are extreme and horrifying and bear no relation to the actual outcomes that do occur and could occur in situations like we’re seeing in the community, where someone uses their voice or their credibility to do verbal and sometimes physical harm to others. In both the War and Peace framing and the Criminal Justice framing, the worst outcome is devastating, in which the offending party is either destroyed entirely or put in jail….neither of which corresponds at all to what an online community can do to another writer or member of the community. And people often act like they do, like “canceling” someone online is as bad as imprisoning them, ruining their ability to make a living. The Puppies’ very existence makes clear that’s not the case.

    Incidentally, I tend to be on the side that we don’t act strong enough in our condemnations and in how we react to those accused of the bad acts in question (whether that be sexual harassment, verbal abuse, racism, etc etc.) Again, obviously whether to forgive is really on the victims more than anyone else, but for me, the point should be that until someone shows meaningful acts of recompense – and BEYOND – and instead people often tend to forgive after short apologies. Like you pointed out with Lou, people will usually repeat their same actions, so it should take a lot more to show that they’re worth considering better than simply an apology. And to hold them to such a standard on social media, and even perhaps on a personal buying level, is still hardly the same as throwing someone in jail.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So maybe you favor atonement. I think that’s a good idea. Apologies ring hollow (cf CUL), but true atonement allows for justice, peace, and reconciliation.

      It’s harder, slower, work, of course, and largely up to the person who’s erred — and depends on that person admitting they’ve done something wrong and feeling bad about it. Which none of the Puppies nor their political heroes are capable of.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, Atonement. And obviously, it’s hard and slow. But on rare occasion, it is done, and it is – contrary to what the “Cancel Culture!” nuts will believe – accepted.

        To use an example from a different community I’m more involved in, there is a retired hockey player who was both a notorious goon on the ice, and generally considered an asshole – with some bad behavior towards others – on the ice. Yet in the past few years, he’s not only repeatedly expressed contrition towards those he harmed, and admitted those acts when confronted, but spoken out against others making such acts, and tried to bring to light the culture that caused him once to think such acts were okay – a culture riddled with abuse, racism, misogyny, homophobia and more. Is he universally accepted by those who once hated him for his prior acts? Of course not, but his acts speak louder than any individual words and his continued doing of good acts against what he once did has made him not a pariah but an example of how one can react – in addition to a genuine force for good.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes, instead of War vs. Criminal Justice the better framing is “kids playing war” vs. “kids playing cops and robbers.” Even if you’re such a bad sport that no one will play with you anymore, the school isn’t going to expel you or lower your grades.


  2. I know you are goingok th for a noble and philosophical discussion…


    Lou Antonelli made a false report to the Spokane police claiming the David Gerold was a terrorist. He did NOT tell them that David was mean to him, he told them that David was a terrorist who had threatened a lot of people’s lives.

    That is the kind of report that has resulted in the deaths of large numbers of innocent people at the hands of police.

    The night that Lou made his false report, he CROWED about it on Facebook and opined how it might shutdown or otherwise damage the 73rd WorldCon.

    Now, the chairs of that WorldCon are longtime friends of mine that I have worked with on the staffs of many conventions. The vast majority of the staff of that WorldCon fits in that category for me, so maybe I took this slightly more personally that some people, but…

    MY GOD! Antonelli made a false report to police that put a target on every single attendee and staff member of a WorldCon, and some people are acting as if it was just some silly misunderstanding?!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

    I know I frequently refer to him as “Crazy Uncle Lou” but whether he was the victim of manipulators or not, he made the kind of false report to police that could have resulted in the deaths of a whole bunch of innocent people. And his drunken comments on Facebook the night he did it make it clear that at least some part of him knew what he was doing.

    In a just world he would be rotting in prison for the rest of his life. And NO ONE would be using him as an example of “one side” or a legitimate political argument.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. fontfolly: In a just world he would be rotting in prison for the rest of his life. And NO ONE would be using him as an example of “one side” or a legitimate political argument.

      Exactly. What Antonelli did was a major act of aggression which posed a threat to convention attendees’ wellbeing.

      And to this day, I am still shocked and angry that the Sasquan chairs allowed David Gerrold to decide that Antonelli would still get to attend, despite having put at risk every single one of us who were attending members. It’s a lasting example of “How To Disrespect Your Members By Demonstrating That Your Convention’s Code Of Conduct Is Meaningless”.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I am reminded of one of the back-of-the-book bits of Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is “some generative metaphors.” In line with harm reduction, would medicine/health be a useful framing. Not “he’s sick and must be destroyed” but “has the community healed?” and “is this person still dangerous?”

    I don’t think we become “immune” to bad actors, but maybe we should consider “what are the risks if we let this person back into our lives/activities?” as well as whether what they did is bad enough that we aren’t going to forgive even if they sincerely apologize and make meaningful amends.

    I’m thinking out loud here, and don’t have a specific case in mind.


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