Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Archon and the Fan Community

I was beginning think I might get away with only one post this whole year. However, local convention drama has blown up. It spans several hundred facebook comments and in an effort to clean things up, if only for my own sanity, I feel compelled to put my thoughts into writing.

The convention in question is Archon, which I've attended for the past 7 years. Many of those years as an attendee, then as a panelist, the past two yeas as an invited Guest. I'm not really all that big of a classic sci-fi/fantasy fan which puts me somewhat at odds with the primary purpose of Archon, but they also do hard science panels. This is a nice change of pace for me since I usually have to force my science through the lens of anime or Japanese culture or whatever else. Not to say this isn't fun, but I don't get many chances to just science. It's where I first did my "Why Everything You Know About Quantum Mechanics is Wrong" panel. It's where I first did my "Modern Astronomy" panel.

So Archon has been a convention I've tended to look forward to every year.

But the past year has made it hard to want to have anything to do with the convention.

Last year, under pressure from attendees, the convention added a harassment policy. However, it was bungled big time. Before I get into how, let me first do some explaining of the broader context of harassment policies and conventions.

The most important thing to understand is that harassment policies don't actually effect much in the way of policy changes. Harassment of all sorts is typically covered in the general rules of conventions and as such, harassment policies are largely redundant from a convention standpoint.

Their real purpose is to send messages. They send a message to potential victims and aggressors that they feel this is an important enough issue to address specifically. This makes people who may be victims feel safer. It puts aggressors on note. Good policies also specifically address behaviors that constitute harassment and thus also serve to educate.

So harassment policies serve a lot of purposes and are important to have if, as a convention, you want your attendees to feel safe.

But it's also possible to have a bad policy. This is the case for Archon. The reason is that Archon chose to have a ridiculous addition to their policy that essentially torpedoes everything I just listed above.

Archon chose to have their policy specifically address false reports of harassment.

While this sounds reasonable, when analyzing the practical effects of this, it becomes counter-productive and absurd. Studies show that false reporting is not the problem. Under reporting is. Having a policy that gets that exactly backwards sends a clear message that the convention doesn't understand this. It sends a clear message to victims that they aren't likely to be taken seriously if they choose to report, thereby compounding the original problem. It sends a clear message to aggressors that they are more likely to get away with it, which makes potential victims less safe.

When Archon implemented this backwards policy, they were immediately called on it by numerous people, myself included. Instead of addressing the problem, none other than the then security head of the convention doubled down, insisting that harassment wasn't really an issue and that he thought it was all people with vendettas trying to get people they didn't like kicked out. The person in charge of making attendees feel safe, pre-emptively told every potential victim he didn't believe them.

At that point, I wrote to the con chair at Archon stating that I would not lend my name to a convention that was so backwards. Quickly, the convention removed the security head and I took this as a step in the right direction and agreed to attend. The counter-productive "false reporting" line was still present, but I took it as a good sign that those in charge understood the issue and were listening, even if only a little.

Fast forward to this year. I've again been invited back as a speaker. I've been slow to respond and I'm glad I have.

Because Archon just made a new mess.

This year, they selected as their "Fan Guest of Honor" one Tim Bolgeo. I'd never heard of him and I don't really care too much about other Guests (unless I'm going to be on a panel with them) so the name flew under my radar as I'm sure it did for most people.

To be sure, Mr. Bolgeo has done many things worthy of being a Fan Guest of Honor. He's helped to found several conventions, helped many up-and-coming writers network, and many more things. These were all listed in his bio on the Archon website. But the bio also made mention of his ezine, "Revenge of Hump Day" (RoHD).

Last week another attendee was researching the Guests with whom he was not familiar and began reading Mr. Bolgeo's RoHD. He found that it was full of racist and sexist jokes. RoHD is also directly hosted by a convention Mr. Bolgeo founded and for which his work with was being honored. The attendee then went to a planning meeting for Archon and voiced his displeasure with the convention honoring someone for what apparently included such offensive work, asking that he be removed from the Guest list. The board deliberated and voted (not without dissent) to keep Mr. Bolgeo.

That attendee then made a second, much more public call via facebook, exposing the material in question and again asked for the board to remove Mr. Bolgeo. This is when the issue was first brought to my attention. I looked through several issues of the RoHD ezine and found that far from just racist and sexist jokes, the ezine also contained bigotry against non-Christians and pseudo-science.

To be fair, much of the most offensive material was not written by Mr. Bolgeo. He merely solicited contributions and published them. His supporters argued that at worst, he was guilty of a sloppy editorial process. However, many times he added commentary. Unfortunately, there are several instances in which Mr. Bolgeo adds personal commentary affirming that he agrees with the racist material. In other cases, as in one instance where he republished a well balanced article, he added his own commentary which was discriminatory as well and in another instance, he implies he supports the use of torture on prisoners of war.

It should also be noted that this attendee apparently double checked that this material was part of the reason that Mr. Bolgeo was being honored and had this point confirmed, being told that RoHD had been nominated for two Hugo Awards (an award that is for the best science fiction and fantasy; a claim that appears to be false, and even if it were true should make anyone seriously question the legitimacy of such an award if copy/pasted jokes and news articles lifted wholesale could qualify).

Upon seeing this, I and other invited speakers, as well as more than a dozen other attendees, threatened to boycott the convention.

Again, the objection was that Archon was honoring offensive material which compounds the issue from last year of making some already marginalized groups feel that they are even more of outsiders. Whether or not Mr. Bolgeo himself is virulently bigoted was beside the point. I suspect that he is not significantly moreso than most people, but the material for which he was being honored clearly was.

Unfortunately this subtle but crucial difference quickly got lost as Mr. Bolgeo found himself at the eye of this storm. The massive error in judgement Archon made by honoring disgusting material in the first place fell by the wayside.

Ultimately, the board reversed its decision under the pressure and uninvited Mr. Bolgeo as a Guest. I think this was the right call in the end. Archon made a mistake in honoring the material in the first place and the best way to fix the mistake at that point, was to disassociate themselves from everything having to do with it.

However, this created collateral damage. A convention cancelling an agreement with a Guest is highly frowned upon. Worse, the spin that this has taken, with the hyperbolic distraction that Mr. Bolgeo is a "virulent racist", has sparked backlash from those that have failed to separate that strawman of his precise level of bigotry (which I argue is not-insignificant but not exceptional), from the issue of the convention honoring discriminatory publications. As such, a good portion perception in the fandom at large is that Mr. Bolgeo has been punished for beliefs that he does not hold by internet sissies who get butthurt over everything and called for his head. The reality that he was an unfortunate casualty of his own (relatively minor) bigotry writ large by Archon's unfortunate lack of common sense. It is unfortunate that they caught themselves between a rock and a hard place in having to choose between losing several through inaction, or losing one because of further action (kind of reminds me of the trolley problem), but that is an issue that Archon has created for itself.

Which is the real shame in my eyes. Regardless of the immature content of RoHD, Mr. Bolgeo obviously had a lot to contribute to the fan community. And despite his anti-science in some areas, I suspect we would strongly agree in others. In particular, I recently debuted a panel on "Understanding Fukushima". As a nuclear engineer, I expect Mr. Bogleo and I would find a great deal of common ground. By setting a faulty stage, Archon has failed him, even if his own baggage was a contributing factor.

Archon has also failed the attendees by once again failing to consider the messages their actions have sent, twice in as many years. The tone-deafness has chased more than a few people away from the fan community in this area.

I applaud Archon's board for making the difficult choice, and coming down on the side of equality, but I have to wonder if the fact that they (and several other conventions recently) keep finding themselves in this position is an indication that our fandom, including those that are tasked with creating welcoming spaces, is itself unwelcoming unwelcoming.


And before anyone pulls the "you're not tolerant of intolerance", jump back a few years and read this. Stupid comments like that will be deleted.


Derek Spraker said...

Jon, I just found your blog post and have to say a big and hearty "Thank You". After around two thousand vile and nasty comments surrounding this 'Fandom Political Firestorm', you have managed to succinctly wrap up a quite cogent discussion of the various 'factions' at work during this disaster.

As you know quite well by now (hehe), I have been firmly in the camp for Tim Bolgeo... and will continue to be. I of course still disagree with bits here and there, but on the whole this has been a great read as well as a well balanced one. In all honesty you have reduced the majority of my complaints and gripes to nits to be picked. (Mostly about things such as his level of personal bigotry, the incredibly public manner it was done, and the targets of offense in the newsletter. In all honesty _EVERYONE_ is a target there, not just certain groups. But that gets back into the debate, and you were actually quite fair in your writeup.)

Yes, in all honesty I imagine that you would find yourself in many points of agreement with Timmy should you ever talk to him. Except on Global Warming, since that one has turned more Liberal/Conservative political rather than actual scientific discourse (which it obviously should be). Anything else should be safe, however. (Though what are your thoughts on the Keystone Pipeline? That might be another one)

And again, I would invite you to talk to him if you do bump into each other. You seem the type that could actually make conversation with someone you disagree with, if anything to have a decent debate. If you did so you might find that he's a much more friendly and accepting person than you would imagine from his newsletter.

As a side note, I didn't realize who I have been going back and forth with. _YOU_ are 'The Angry Astronomer'? I have read quite a few of your blog posts over the years as they've been linked from various boards such as Slashdot, Reddit, etc. (I honestly believe you might have made an appearance or two in The Revenge, but I'm not quite sure).

As a close, again I thank you for your level headed approach to this topic. And good luck in your continuing fight against pseudo-science. Now I'm off to listen to an episode of Skeptoid. :-)

Jon Voisey said...

I would agree that everyone is a target in the newsletter, so I've primarily let that slide since the newsletter is pretty much an equal opportunity offender and is, as so many have pointed out, not necessarily representative of his opinions.

The problem I had, and I've said this repeatedly, is when he Mr. Bolgeo tips his hand, supporting particular angles. Particularly ones that are racist (which MJ called out) and ones that I personally found but haven't called out specifically because I didn't want to continue to make this about him, and kept trying to bring this back to the problems the convention created. I'll admit that I was poor at doing that in some cases and did repeatedly bring those cases up when people kept using the canard that there's no objectionable material that's actually his in there. I have a bad tendency not to let BS go unchallenged.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Thank you for doing the research, and thank you many times more for using support for torture as a serious issue.

If you don't mind, do you think the nastiness of the jokes Bulgeo reprinted was as evenly distributed as the targets?

Fritz Ling said...

I definitely agree with you in wishing that the still as of yet unnamed individual that ignited this flame war with his/her inflammatory posting had focused on the content and context as you have described instead of the riot inciting character assignation of Uncle Timmy that was delivered. If that had been the csse, the last few days would have been a whole different discussion and debate.

While I do disagree with your assessment of "..between losing several through inaction, or losing one...". Many more than one was lost. Not just fans. From the many author blogs I've read, this action/innaction by Archon has very well possibly affect the decision quite a number of Pros when it comes to considering accepting a GoH invite from Archon. That, in itself, is a sadness. Running a Con is hard work enough without having yet another hurdle added to the track. Still, I wish them the best.

I would liked to have seen the Archon FB Page moderators handle the situation (meaning the initial flame post that started it all) differently and discretely in an effort to prevent the herd mentality that insued in regards to the shear amount of open forum bashing of Mr Bolgeo the Person as well as anyone that spoke out in his defense. The fire storm that ensued was epic. As it is, the embers are still burning.

So, thank you for writing this sensible and even tempered note on the subject. I, for one, as an Uncle Timmy Supporter, appreciate it and you.

Thanks again.

Jon Voisey said...

It's a hard thing to really judge well. The problem is that even if there are jokes with two different targets, the impact can be completely different. And that's the rub.

For example,

"A man is complaining about how long it takes his wife to pack for a trip. She counters that it's because women have to pack more things like makeup, bras, etc... He responds saying he doesn't understand why she bothers with a bra; she doesn't have much to put in it.

She stops and says, 'You wear briefs don't you?'"

This joke is narrow in scope and doesn't reinforce harmful stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination. There's no collateral damage.

However, many of the jokes Mr. Bolgeo republishes DO reenforce harmful stereotypes simply because some groups face stereotypes that are more harmful than others. He is an equal opportunity offender, but the truth of the situation is that a joke that lightly mocks Christianity is not as harmful as a joke that lightly mocks blacks. Christianity is a supermajority and the stereotypes don't prevent them from getting jobs, result in them being put in jail more often, etc...

So even jokes of the same "nastiness" can't even directly be compared.

But I think you're asking something more fundamental. Is the "nastiness" in a more general sense really equal. I don't believe it is. While the targets of the joke are diverse, there are no "jokes" that I saw about putting walls around the Vatican and letting them murder each other. There is about blacks in Detroit. There are no "jokes" that I saw about putting Republicans in SUVs with right-wing bumper stickers and using it as a fun reality TV show as they drive around California getting shot at. There is about putting Democrats in pink Priuses and having them drive around Texas.

No. The "jokes" that amount to laughing about the possibility of murder and other abhorrences tended to be much more slanted towards minorities and the left.

Jon Voisey said...

MJCS is his initials. He goes by MJ in real life. He wears the costumes that are pictured on his FB page to Archon every year. He's not just some internet troll. Nor did he incite character assignation. Please re-read his original post: Like me, he has kept his focus squarely on the material in question and Archon's highlighting thereof. When it got out of hand was when OTHER people started with the hyperbole, including the unfortunate quote that really set off the defense of "virulent racist".

I agree that the FB moderators should have handled things better. Posts that clearly miss the point (most of the ones that focused on the person and not the material), were trolling (such as Quilly Mammoth; speaking of internet pseudonyms) or those that were cheering the impending deaths of others (such as Andy Hamilton) had no place in this discussion. I would have liked to see Em Jay exercise more of a guiding hand since he was the originator of the complaint. But it's a hard thing to do on all sides.

You are right that Archon may have lost several guests in the long run, but they had to concern themselves with the short run as well, which is what I was speaking to.

I too wish the board and Archon well, but this series of events from them has made it clear that the board has some truly toxic individuals with little to no foresight which is causing problems. I truly hope this changes.

Cindy A. Matthews said...

I think you make vitally important points when you state that when a
convention's harassment policy makes potential victims take the brunt of
the proof and the con security can blythely say, "They're making it
up--they're a troublemaker," it will scare away potential attendees who
fear for their safety and in fact their very lives.

It that sad
old story of BLAME THE VICTIM NOT THE BULLY. And as we ALL know, rape
victims are just "making it up" and because of the way they
dress/act/look they DESERVED to be raped. (Even the babies and little
old ladies.) That horribly outdated attitude makes me sick to my

I appreciate your blog about how important it is for
any convention to be open and honest and to put forward progressive
attitudes that protect EVERYONE from the evils of
emotional/physical/psychological abuse, which would include racism.

Fritz Ling said...

We'll have to agree to disagree on the verbiage of his initial posting. Over the last few days I've read it several times, keeping an open mind, and found that the composition was written and compiled to be a direct affront to Timmy’s character. It seemed, to me, that he found that to be the only way to get his point across.

If he meant something else, I would have liked for him to have written it differently.

Torey James said...

I came late to fandom and went into the convention running side of it. I have to say that Fandom as a
whole is really no different than mainstream culture with one notable
exception. The sexist and racist and exclusionary are less subtle about
who/what they are. Even the ones against harassment don't do enough to protect the potential victims because the ones creating and enforcing the policies don't want to offend "The Elder Statesmen" of the convention/local fandom.

The movement to eradicate "-isms" and harassment based on them are being spearheaded by people who are the most socially ept in non-fannish areas and realize that being a Geek is no longer a subculture option. Being a Geek has gone mainstream and the mainstream socially ept fans get it.

I've had to deal with the profound
disappointment of fandom's overt "-isms". As fans and geeks and nerds
we have an unstated and unrealistic belief that we, as a group, are
inclusive and friendly. It hurts to find out we've been lied to and are
lying to others by simple association.

sagaston said...

After attending Archon for over a decade, and being a guest for the past few years, I declined to attend last year following the Con Harassment mess, and following the events this week, I declined their invitation to attend again this year, and informed the staff that I would likely not attend Archon ever again while it's run by the same people. I think I just have a fundamental different set of values than they do, and wouldn't feel comfortable attending or encouraging others to attend by my presence.

Jon Voisey said...

I've still got one foot on either side. Archon has done serious damage to its credibility as a welcoming convention. Even though I've found the attendees there to be as nice as at any convention I've attended which makes it truthfully welcoming, the message they have sent has been anything but. Archon has made some small steps in the right direction, but as evidenced by this post almost 3 years ago, I'm not a fan of hollow apologies. If you want me to believe that you're really improving, you have to understand and acknowledge what you did wrong.

That being said, I also understand that taking a hard line like that and actually stating that the convention deems the material offensive is to enter a whole different minefield. From a political standpoint, trying to step away while remaining as outwardly neutral is the best move they can make. Even if it's not satisfying to anyone, at least it's less likely to offend anyone further.

So I'm willing to cut them some slack since Archon is a fairly well run convention in so many other aspects.

J. C. Salomon said...

There are Hugo Awards for various kinds of fanac (fannish activities); see

Seems to me Archon could simply have removed mention of Bolgeo’s newsletter and still have honored him for his other contributions to fandom (which, I am told, are much more significant, and have gone on for much longer, than his ezine).

Cynthianna Matthews said...

Yes, it's been run fairly well in my experience. (I do admit I don't attend dances/parties and so I'm not really cognizant of the harassment policy issues.) We have lots of friends there, enjoy their company, and have enjoyed the panels we've participated on and sat in on and listened to. The costuming is superb as well. So, you don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but you don't want to feel "soil" by the bathwater, either. My husband and I are still planning to attend, but if anything should change in the meantime to make us want to back out, we'll back out. Sad, but I'm sure Archon will continue on without us.

Brad Handley said...

He joked about fat bald rednecks and it is agreed that he reposted low brow humor against all people. He Archie Bunkered everyone including himself.

Brad Handley said...

Jon.... well aint you special.... Phyllis Diller told that joke about Fang back in the 70s and people used it cruelly to mock men with small tools. "My husband....."

Brad Handley said...

I like Archon. The fact that it is now losing what I like most about SciFi is sad. Sci Fi is supposed to be about accepting other people and being respectful of people who are different then you. And the vitriol of the leftist thought police has been scary.
Sagaston, please do not let your voice be lost cloud of the thought police. If you do that then they have won.
The FGOH in question actually has an invite from a Prior GOH to come as his +1. I hope he does. But it is his decision. I do not want his voice lost either. But when Black, Hispanic and LGBT posted in his defense saying you are taking this out of context with the hole, they were routinely dismissed and shouted down. do not let the thought police win.

sagaston said...

I absolutely don't blame anyone or feel negatively towards anyone who looked at the situation as thoroughly as you have and came to a different conclusion.

And honestly, part of my decision was that I've been enjoying Archon less and less as the years go on, so I was weighing "this thing I used to really want to go to every year" vs "uuuugh this BS". That was a much easier decision than if I still found Archon completely enjoyable and worthwhile.

I do hope they turn it around, I don't expect the people who have been running it to do so.

Btw - are you on the twitters or elsewhere on the tubes? You seem like a cool guy.

sagaston said...

I can't take the phrase "leftist thought police" seriously, I'm sorry. If your goal is to convince people who disagree with you to reconsider, that's not the way to do it.

Jon Voisey said...

As a note, I'm going to be moderating this thread very heavily. I'm not playing the game of getting away from the main topic here.

sagaston said...

I went ahead and deleted my reply as well.

Jon Voisey said...

I have a twitter, but I never did understand it, so I maybe post to it a few times a year. I do have a public person profile on Facebook that I use somewhat more.

Cynthianna Matthews said...

It seems the derogatory comments are slowing down on my blog. Maybe my repeating, "Please refrain from using profanities and name-calling" has finally convinced some to give it a rest? I hope so!