Not The Fox News: The World Fantasycon Problem

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Right now, World Fantasy Con is busy faceplanting yet again. I was part of the volunteer team for WFC ’13 and it was, despite the magnificent people I worked with, a profoundly miserable experience. Rightly or wrongly, from our point of view it was a con defined by arrogance, hubris and a refusal to acknowledge anyone outside the tiny social circle that was choking the British genre fiction industry at that point.

To be clear, I made some of the closest friends in my life that weekend partially because of that adversity and I’d work with any of them again in a heartbeat. But not the con chairs and certainly not the WFS committee who existed that weekend as a whispered collection of ghosts, always there, always disapproving but never actually communicating.

A big part of the problem that year was the convention’s almost belligerent pride in not having a full harassment policy. It was a pride I saw articulated at a different event a year later, with some of the same people. It seemed that ‘we’ didn’t need a harassment policy. That any time something had happened in the past it had been dealt with in house. ‘we’, a group it was made abundantly clear was very small, were ‘above that sort of thing’.

Note I was told absolutely none of this to my face and neither, once again, was any other volunteer or con staff member. A Facebook echo chamber was a completely acceptable place to have this discussion though.

The one time I did see this bubble to the surface was in passing. I overhead a conversation complaining about the extensive nature of the harassment policy for the event. I pointed out to the people talking that the event they were at was a field leader and surely by those lights it made sense to over legislate as an example to others and went on my way. I had things to do. When you’re con staff you always do.

That’s why a very small part of me can see their point. The British genre scene is vanishingly tiny and a sizable portion of it shows up for this event every year. It’s easy to just assume you and your chums will comport yourself in a manner that befits you all.

But it’s not about you. It’s not about your chums. It’s not even about what usually happens.

It’s about what might happen. And how you’ll handle it when it does.

In the last two years I’ve been part of a team asked to deal with a single incident. I saw my colleagues treat the individual who had been harassed with compassion, patience and respect. I saw them be given the space they needed to collect themselves and make decisions rather than be pressured into a choice they might later regret. I have rarely been prouder of the teams of volunteers I’ve worked with over the last few years than I was on that day.

And that’s why the mealy mouthed legal tapdance WFC’15 was throwing up wasn’t just bullshit, it was and still is actively harmful. This event, that proudly lays claim to being the definitive convention for industry professionals, was not bothering to do something that events with a tenth its status and a hundredth its reach have baked into their procedures. The obvious defense here is of course the tiny size of the community and ‘we’ choosing to deal with it ‘in house’.

That’s not even in the same time zone as ‘good enough’.

No one on Earth WANTS to have a harassment policy. Even in building one you’re forced to imagine the absolute worst of the people around you, and in doing so, work out how to minimize the damage they may cause. These people have to, by definition, include your friends and colleagues. It’s an inherently cautious, inherently cynical piece of work that codifies the worst potential human behaviour and how to deal with it. No one wants that, least of all members of a community that likes to pay lip service to inclusion and diversity. But we all need it precisely because of that inclusion and diversity.

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As of this morning, the WFC 15 website features this language:

New York State has strict legal requirements regarding harassment. We are developing a policy in concert with the Saratoga County District Attorney and the Saratoga Springs Police Department. It will be posted here and given separately to every member at registration. World Fantasy is a social event. Members are expected, as a matter of civility, to observe generally accepted social conventions. No means no. All members are expected to respect other convention members.

It’s an acknowledgement that harassment policies are necessary, and a massive error of judgment and tone has been noticed and is being acted upon. It is, in no way, a solution or an apology and that’s going to get them in a lot of justifiable trouble with a lot of justifiably angry people.

Since I first wrote this piece they’ve also released a statement via their Facebook page that they realize this isn’t sufficient and will roll out the harassment policy from last year, combined with the policy they already had. After the language is ‘reviewed for comprehensiveness’.

So to be clear; after not understanding how libel law works in their own State, or the incredibly complex and gentle procedures needed to deal with any harassment incident with the compassion required, they’ve decided to bolt what seems to be a serviceable policy onto their own nonsense after chopshopping the two together.

Hooray.

We’re saved.

It’s not just this nonsense that makes me angry. It’s the fact that it’s 2015, and, somehow this is still a conversation that keeps happening. Worse still, it’s a conversation that keeps happening around an event that has faceplanted on this issue again and and again. The history of WFC’s catastrophic attitude to harassment is a matter of public record and it’s as ridiculous as it is embarrassing because IT KEEPS HAPPENING. And I know, like most conventions, it gets passed to different groups every year. I also know those groups have members who are alive, have internet access and should have been paying attention.

A convention needs a harassment policy like it needs a venue. That’s how necessary it is and that’s how incompetent any convention that tries to skirt around this issue is being. And that’s why WFC ’15’s failure and increasingly desperate flailing makes me so angry. Because this is an opportunity for the self-proclaimed leaders of the industry to do just that; lead. And yet, again, they’re running to catch up.

 

This article wouldn’t have been possible without the sterling work done by Natalie Luhrs . Click on her name to go to her blog.

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