It’s my experience that conventions, be they literary, popular, fan-based, or anything in between, are fun places. Yet we need only look at recent examples of bad behavior, born of either ill intention or otherwise innocent individuals embodying the social maladroit, to see that not all convention experiences are equal. At times it seems like conventions can facilitate some pretty hostile environments for those who attend.
But before I go any further into this discussion, I want to make something clear. Last week at SFContario 4, I did not see anything that constitutes outright harassment. Nor have I ever seen anything that constitutes harassment, under section 264 of the Criminal Code of Canada, at any of SFContario’s iterations.
For that reason, I think it is timely to continue an ongoing discussion on the social ills of convention culture. Nobody’s reputation is at stake in this post. This is not my attempt to pillory someone in the town square, nor search out the witches who live among us. It’s a sober minded, low-stakes attempt to discuss some of the structural problems inherent to a community-based activity within a cultural niche.
Bearing that in mind, let’s start on the idea of a community. I don’t think I’d invite any argument if I generalized conventions as a gathering of a specific community. I think we can also accept it as a given that communities have a central principle or principles that bind them together. While principles might bring people together, they don’t ensure all people follow the spirit and letter of those principles in how they conduct themselves. Thus we see more and more conventions establishing codes of conduct. Codes of conduct are a good thing. Except that the mechanisms for enforcing these codes of conduct strike as a little too early modern for my taste.
Given the number of people attending a convention, compared to the relatively small number of people who organize them, they are by nature self-policing affairs. Codes of conduct, depending on how well they are written, set expectations for acceptable behavior, but their efficacy hinges doubly upon a participant’s willingness to abide and their accepting a personal responsibility to observe and report when others violate this agreement. It is the latter part of the equation that lends itself toward the out-dated models of jurisprudence.
Consider the following hypothetical situation. A person witnesses what they perceive to be harassment. They spend two to ten minutes climbing stairs, riding elevators, and wandering halls to find the convention’s authorities. The convention’s authorities listen to the charge and set about addressing the alleged offender. The alleged offender says, “I’m innocent.” The authorities then call for witnesses. Eye witnesses report their testimony, such as it is. Finally, a defacto verdict is rendered. This situation presumes that nobody felt the need to alert the proper authorities, as the alleged harassment is more subtle than an attempted rape, a punch in the face, or a Prince Harry circa 2005 cosplay.
Things get even more problematic when this 17th century judicial models intersects with 21st communications. Tweets and blogs go viral, building one person up or tearing down another. The court of public opinion begins offering its own opinions. Inevitably, this brings the militant advocates and naredowell trolls out of the woodwork. Victims are blamed; ill founded comparisons to Hitler and Ninteen Eighty-Four are made. The core issue gets lost amid a storm of bullshit. What is the net result? Does it solve the problem, or simply highlight it?
Perhaps we can make some small changes in pursuit of a more civil experience for all.
Begin with putting all attendees on an even footing. When it comes to issues of harassment, the laws of the land, at least in Canada, are not particularly hard to parse. While this should not be seen as an invitation for attendees to anoint themselves with Street Judge-like powers, it has the benefit of undercutting any bullshit about convention attendees not knowing better because their cultural niche is anti-social. Expectations of civil behavior can not and should not be subject to narratives of a person not knowing any better.
Next, remember the latin: Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat – the burden of proof lies upon the one who affirms, not the one who denies. While that saying applies to the judicial system, it’s a good thing to remember within convention space. It also connects to my next point.
The convention is not a courtroom.
Except in the most flagrant of circumstances, a the truth of a thing will not be determined over the course of a weekend. Given the potential for witch hunts based on anecdote, hearsay, and conjecture, convention culture needs a new system of maintaining a positive experience for all attendees. If that system infringes upon the prevailing laissez-faire nature of a convention, so be it.
Finally, I think conventions need to do a better job of funnelling the sex. Strangely enough, people like having sex. Assemble hundreds or thousands of people in the same hotel or convention space, all of them sharing similar interests, and some of those attendees will view the convention as a place for hooking up. That’s fine, good on them. But if people are getting chat up in places not otherwise designed for chatting up, why don’t conventions do more to create a space where that behavior is encouraged.
Imagine a singles mixer/speed dating/whatever as a dry affair, supervised by uniformed security. The guard makes sure nobody is compelled to leave by anything other than their own accord. The booze free policy precludes roofie-coladas and other such means of coercion. If individuals know they can meet a new friend/interest/fuck buddy at a designated place and time, the more socially cumbersome among them might be less inclined to use a book launch party as a pick-up lounge.
Of course, I understand that nothing that I’ve said here addresses the solo harassment that befalls many a female cosplayer. I don’t have a solution for the fact that some humans are foul creatures who break the law in such a way that they can not be prosecuted. My knee jerk reaction is to say throw them all out on reasonable suspicion and make sure they can’t come back. But my greater sense of justice says that there’s no way to evenly enforce such a simplistic policy in a way that effectively isolates the innocent and from the guilty.
Therefore, I suggest that if we’re going to call ourselves a community – and largely act like a community – then we need to engage in the sort of constant civic oversight required of all communities. Let’s focus on these conversations now; when our attention isn’t targeting an individual offender and all the requisite baggage that comes with it. If all we do is react when things go wrong, it will take longer to come upon the comprehensive solutions that issues of convention harassment merit.