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.