A Healthy Dose of Professionalism
So for much of the last two weeks I’ve been kept offline by travel (yay 4th Street Fantasy!) and offline life doings. Now that life is starting to settle back down, I’ve entered catch-up mode. When I left for Minnesota, much of the discussion was focused on the controversy surrounding SFWA’s Bulletin, N.K. Jemisin’s GoH speech, and Theodore Beale/Vox Day’s racist response to it. I wrote about these issues here and here. While I was away, the SF/F corner of the internet has been quite busy (for a good timeline, I recommend S.L. Huang’s post here).
Since the last update (on July 3rd) to S.L. Huang’s timeline, several notable events have happened which give me hope for the science fiction & fantasy community:
- Convention Harassment Policy Pledge. Former SFWA president John Scalzi posts a public description of his newly-adopted convention attendance policy, wherein he categorically states that should a convention not have a harassment policy or fail to communicate such policy clearly to its members, he will not attend that convention in any capacity (e.g. as a Guest of Honor, panelist, fan/member, etc.).
- Scalzi’s Policy Gains Co-signatories. Many other writers, fans, publishers, and editors (as of this writing, over 550 and counting) across a myriad of genders and backgrounds co-sign Scalzi’s Harassment Policy pledge.
- SFWA Bulletin Task Force Announces Next Steps. SFWA’s Bulletin Task Force (established in response to the SFWA Bulletin controversy) announces that all Bulletin contributors have been paid for their contracted work despite the Bulletin’s publication being suspended. SFWA’s statement furthermore reiterates and clarifies plans for a survey to be delivered to members to get a better sense of what the organization’s membership expects of The Bulletin.
- SFWA Proceeds with Vox Day/Theodore Beale Matter. Following complaints about SFWA-member Vox Day (aka Theodore Beale)’s racist attacks on fellow SFWA-member N.K. Jemisin and his abuse of SFWA promotional tools to disseminate same, many SFWA members have begun calling for Day’s expulsion from the organization. SFWA has responded by following its organizational procedures and compiling a confidential investigative report and sharing it with Vox Day for his response. Vox Day chose to publish the e-mail correspondence in question (note: again, FWIW, I choose not link to Vox Day’s blog here, but a quick Google search will find it), though not the contents of the investigative report itself.
Why do these four events give me hope? Because they are all markers of an increasingly professional response to the cultural drama unfolding in the SF/F community.
Harassment Policy Pledge as an Articulation of Standards
Scalzi’s harassment policy pledge is a statement of professional standards. It articulates a clear set of expectations that all conventions can and should be held to. One can quibble as to whether or not his standards go far enough or fall short, yet they remain a reasonable set of standards nevertheless. And while they are his personal standards, the fact that so many people active and involved and passionate about the genre agree with them lends credence to the belief that those who disagree are a small and dwindling minority in the community.
I am saddened that as a community we still need such clear and plain-spoken standards. I am disappointed that such standards are not simply a “given” in our cultural makeup. But I am proud that as a community we can articulate these expectations and that so much of the community supports them. I see this as a sign of burgeoning professionalism in the community.
SFWA’s Steps on the Bulletin
I sympathize with SFWA’s new Board. They probably had a rough first week. However, SFWA’s behavior speaks well of the Board’s attitude towards professionalism. The Board treated its business partners (the writers who had been contracted to write for the Bulletin) honorably and correctly, as befits a professional outfit. As an organization that represents writers, it would have been an egregious act of bad faith to have stiffed its own constituents. Thankfully, SFWA took the high road and did exactly what it should have. I applaud the Board for its professionalism.
I have more mixed opinions on the announced Bulletin survey. On the one hand, seeking to get insight from SFWA constituents is a professional response to the high emotions and rhetoric surrounding the recent controversies. Regardless of the task force’s ultimate decision(s), such a survey will simultaneously help give SFWA’s leadership insight into the current mindset of the membership and will give that membership a chance for its voice/views to be heard. This is good. This is professional. This is as it should be.
However, having spent my professional career in the world of market research, I am less confident that a survey of dissatisfied customers (i.e. Bulletin readers/SFWA members) is a good way to design a better product going forward. It is notoriously difficult for a survey respondent to offer meaningful recommendations to a researcher, particularly in a quantitative tool. Yes, it can be done, and yes, a survey can be well-designed to elicit more practical / meaningful data. But it is not easy, and the quality of data that SFWA gets from its survey will be directly dependent on both the questionnaire that SFWA designs and the response rate that SFWA achieves. It leads to me wonder whether SFWA will be designing the questionnaire or conducting the research in-house or contracting it out to a professional?
Still, that is ultimately the technical challenge of executing on the published plan. As it stands, SFWA’s Bulletin Task Force has been proceeding exactly as it should in responding to the controversies surrounding the Bulletin. The Task Force’s response has been measured, responsible, and professional. Which is exactly as it should be.
A Comparison of Two Approaches: SFWA and Vox Day
SFWA’s proceedings on the Vox Day matter are equally telling. From an outsider’s perspective, the e-mails which Vox Day chose to publish (which I currently assume are accurate) are procedural, bureaucratic, and precise. They are unambiguous and procedurally even-handed. They are downright boring. Which is again exactly as it should be in a professional organization’s professional conduct.
Some may complain that SFWA should move faster or should make its proceedings in regards to Vox Day public, but I strongly disagree. Due process – even in a private organization which defines for itself what such due process is – matters. Responsibly and completely investigating the complaints against Vox Day/Theodore Beale and giving him time to respond is exactly what the organization should do. And this cannot – and should not – happen overnight.
The confidentiality of these proceedings is a somewhat more debatable choice. I can see arguments both for making the proceedings public (to give constituents insight into the proceedings/decision-making process) and for keeping them confidential (to protect everyone: those who complain, those who have been accused, those who defend the accused, and the organization itself). As it stands, SFWA’s Board has chosen to keep the proceedings confidential. I am not certain I agree with that choice, but I can respect it as reasonable, responsible, and (again) professional.
Vox Day has chosen to only partially respect the confidentiality of SFWA’s proceedings, attempting to use that very confidentiality as a stalking horse to appear victimized. This is an unprofessional attempt to shift the proceedings into an inappropriate forum: it is not the internet’s job to adjudicate this matter. That is the right and responsibility of SFWA’s Board.
As I said in my last post on this subject, I won’t opine on whether Vox Day should remain a member of SFWA or not. I’m not (yet) a member, so my voice in this regards should be meaningless. In this process, it is SFWA’s Board (and ultimately SFWA’s membership) which sets the rules. That’s just the way professional governance works. By publicly flouting the rules, Vox Day is sending a clear message to SFWA’s Board and its membership: He does not respect SFWA’s right to govern itself, nor does he respect the professional approach SFWA’s Board has adopted.
But in all of this, what makes me smile is the fact that SFWA – and SFWA’s freshly-minted Board – is approaching all of this with a reasonable, responsible, and professional approach. Which is exactly what I would want from a professional organization. And all of this gives me increased hope that – slowly, very slowly – the tempest I first wrote about a month ago is beginning to ebb.
Beautiful. Thanks for putting this down for us to read, Chris. Illuminating and encouraging, to say the least.
Another Hopeful SFWA Member
Thanks! I’m glad you feel that way, too!
the fact that so many people active and involved and passionate about the genre agree with them lends credence to the belief that those who disagree are a small and dwindling minority in the community.
That assumes that there are only two categories of people involved: those waving the currently-popular flag, and those who are really terrible people. It’s a popular assumption, and it means those who disagree about the methods but don’t want to be a$$holes are functionally silenced. I don’t pretend to have numbers on how large that subset is, but I can personally guarantee you it exists.
In the drive to make SFWA and the SF community more welcoming, that’s making some people feel very unwelcome indeed. Being treated as acceptable collateral damage doesn’t make that any better.
You make a valid point: There exists nuance between different viewpoints and it wouldn’t be healthy for the community to lose sight of that. There is always a danger in such debates of silencing opposing views through either the nature of the rhetoric, its volume, or the number of its supporters. Personally, I’d hope that as a community we can avoid doing so (practically, I realize that may be over optimistic).
There are lots of “controversies” in the air at the moment. Their strains are mixing and the arguments and rhetoric in support of different positions are overlapping in many instances. I actually think that is a shame, because I believe that the proper response to each of these individual controversies should be tailored to its particular context.
We can differ as to whether the public (or semi-public) rhetoric surrounding these controversies is too heated to be constructive (I don’t believe it is). But I think that a discussion around methods is a reasonable one that many would welcome.
From my perspective, methods/approaches that contribute to the genre/community’s professionalism are positive. And (as the shift in public attention away from the Bulletin suggests) they help to tone down much of the most-heated rhetoric and give space for real workable solutions to be examined.