Monday, November 9, 2015

No Longer At Ease

Well, it's not quite official yet: as I type, I'm sitting in seat 22F, watching Tom Cruise get the stuffing knocked out of him by Russian heavies on an 8" screen. But if you're reading this, it's safe to say that after three weeks, eight flights, four time zones, and more wonderful people than I can count, my grandiose gallivanting is finally over, and I'm home again.

I'm really, really glad I got to do that.

I really, really should not have done that.

But let me back up.

I spent the weekend at World Fantasy Con in Saratoga Springs, New York. Getting there was an adventure in itself, but I'm so glad I got to go: WFC is the first "all-pro" convention I've attended, and spending a weekend at what feels like the ends of the earth, stuck in with a few hundred of your peers, is a real experience.

I'm calling it "Still Life in Hilton Bathroom: How To Tell Your Roomie Had a Great Night."
I got to sit in on some TERRIFIC readings – truly, you don't know how badly you need psychic elephant-men, wind-tunnel aerial knife-fights, or grade-school taxidermists until you finally get some – and meet wonderful new people and have tremendous conversations. There were shenanigans and shoe-hunting expeditions and the most lavish ice cream bar I've ever seen.

And this guy. THIS FRICKIN' GUY.
Then on Friday night, a funny thing happened.

There was an "all-call" mass autograph session, which if you ask me, is a really great idea: they just filled up a ballroom with tables and chairs and invited everyone who wanted to (not just the people on programming!) to find a seat and sign their books.

And boy, it was the best kind of bedlam. I had never seen so many people rushing around with armfuls of books – not comics, but actual honest-to-god novels to be signed. It was glorious!

Look at it! Isn't it the most stupendous sight?
It was also kind of a mess: since it was open seating, there was no alphabetical order – no order of any kind. You had to cruise the aisles one at a time, angling to try to get a glimpse of the little printed name-cards – not an easy feat with people clumped up and queuing in front of the tables. After I'd looked and looked and still couldn't find the author I wanted (one of the guests of honor, no less!), I decided to go find a staffer who might be able to direct me.

That's when I realized that I hadn't seen any staffers. No volunteers at all – not one in the entire weekend.

They were there, of course. Handing out packets at the registration desk, flashing five-minute signs at the panels, setting table tents between each of the readings. But they weren't marked at all: no vests or shirts or colored badges. Just the same street-wear (okay, nerd-shirt-wear) as the rest of us. If you weren't actively watching them at work, they were invisible.

And that's when it hit me: what would I do if there were an actual problem? Forget missing out on an autograph – what if I got the bad touch, or watched it happen to someone else? What if there were a fight, or a theft, or a creeper?

Look again: which of these people do you go to for help?
Graceful segue goes here.

One of the readings I went to was Mike Underwood's. Well, tried to go to: I showed up, along with a few other people. Mike never did. That was unusual: we knew he was at the con, and he's not one to flake on a gig.

When I caught up to him later and gave him grief about it, I found out what I would have known days ago, if I'd been paying literally any attention to the digi-sphere: he'd declined his programming as a matter of principle – as a way of protesting WFC's disaster of a harassment non-policy.

And like... I did know about that. I wasn't so completely up myself that I hadn't learned about the controversy. But I'm ashamed to say that it wasn't until that moment in the autograph hall that I actually felt it: that it finally occurred to me that I might not be in a safe place.

I'm not proud of that. I don't like to think of myself as a person whose empathy doesn't extend past her own nose, whose concerns stop at the boundaries of her own experience. I've been doing this convention thing for two years now – more than enough time to catch wise to the serious, pervasive behavior issues that have long festered in our backyard.

Reminders of which were literally spelled out for us this weekend.
And I wonder if it's easier to dismiss those issues when it's "just us". Just us pros, or just us fans, or just us girls, or just us anything. It's easy to drop your guard around people you've known since forever, easy to forget the duty of care we accept when we undertake stewardship and hospitality. Much harder to see your community's potential for causing harm and distress, especially when you yourself have such generous intentions, and have benefited so much from the generosity of others. And downright impossible to know who's missing – who you're missing out on – because you were so caught up in the camaraderie that you neglected to take on any accountability for your guests' well-being.

I'm not sure what the right answer is for those of us on the attending side of the table. There's not a firm consensus, even among the leading lights of our community: John Scalzi has implemented a standing boycott of conventions that fail on this front, while Kameron Hurley has critiqued this approach as unfeasible if not blatantly counterproductive.

Regardless: I know what the ancient Greeks said about hosts who disregarded their sacred duties. I know we can work harder and do better. And with all my '90s-kid heart, I know I wanna be like Mike.


  1. I find it disturbing that so much attention is focused on people POTENTIALLY being victimized. What if someone had been creepy to you? What if some guy flashed you? What if someone touched you or someone else inappropriately? You can 'what if' all day. Do you really need someone there to run to? You're just as much an adult as that person would be. Can you not declare loudly 'That is inappropriate!' or 'If she's not your significant other, get your had off her ass!' Public shaming used to work very handily for such things. So did a swift kick to the crotch.

    1. Well, Anon, we focus on potential victimization because the goal is to actually prevent harm instead of merely punishing it. But let's break it down.

      1. Except for immediate self-defense, a kick to the crotch (or anywhere else) is assault, plain and simple. No good.

      2. Public shaming is confrontation, which (when we're talking about real-time meatspace) escalates the situation immensely. Potentially an appropriate response, but I'm not going to do that if it puts me or someone else at further risk. I'm not going to provoke any fight (literal or metaphorical) that I can't win.

      Because here's the thing: at the end of the day, I can say "Cut that out" as loud and assertively as I want - and if they say "or else what?", what's my recourse? Call the police? Sure, if there's blood on the floor. But there's a reason movie theaters have ushers, stores have managers, and workplaces have HR departments. It's not out of the goodness of their hearts. It's *good business*. Setting a standard and having arbiters present to enforce it safeguards everyone involved: customers/clients, employees, and the business itself. Yes, we're adults, and that means taking responsibility for ourselves when we walk out the front door. But real life isn't a comic book or an Old West saloon, and the army-of-one mentality only works if you're Ronda Rousey or Batman.