I Have Nothing to Say

30 Jun

It’s true. I’ve tried to start this blog three times already. I started trying to address the latest round of harassment controversies in the SF world. Too fraught, especially for someone who can never see things in black and white. When people are upset – rightfully so – they don’t want to hear a nuanced analysis of why some people seem to need to bully and sexually harass others. And there are nuances – of culture and upbringing and mental health and age and matter of appropriate responses.  So I decided to try something less fraught: my experiences in the last week dealing with the exportation and distribution of books.  Too damn boring.

So that brought me back to this whole issue of harassment. Ugh.

It’s tough for a guy my age. I am literally on a cusp.  The majority of men I know who are older than me actually don’t get it; the majority of men younger than me, do.  There are exceptions on both sides of the line.

When what we are talking about is old men making stupid remarks about gender, I’m inclined to shrug, but maybe that’s just me.  People who are stupid about gender are really no different than people who are stupid about other things. It stems from ignorance, or a nostalgic (and sepia-toned) remembrance of things past or a willful wish-fulfillment. All one can say is: get over it.  The world has changed.  If it ever was the way you describe, it has changed.  Get with the program or get used to being laughed at. Should they be told to shut up and go away? I don’t think so. Should their past accomplishments be denigrated in a wave of revisionist history? Definitely not. Should they be expelled from the community? Wow, that is a really ugly road to go down.

The joke used to go: If you put two Trotskyites in a room you wind up with three political parties. Doctrinal purity is a satisfying but lonely place.

When people say stupid things, refute them, rebut them, in some cases, walk away and ignore them. If they say hateful things, point out what is hateful about those things, as politely as possible (though sometimes ‘as possible’ means not very politely at all). I’m not a big fan of rage-fueled profanity laced rants (I seldom get to the end of one in a blog) but I understand why they are sometimes necessary.

When people do stupid things, it’s a whole other ballgame. Recently, Jim Frenkel, a senior editor at TOR, has been accused of sexually harassing a female writer. I have great admiration for the woman who made a formal complaint against him – both to his employer and a convention. It takes a lot of courage to report someone, especially if that person has, or is perceived to have power over you.  I don’t know Mr. Frenkel but according to one source, he has done this before. Some outrage has been expressed that nothing was done earlier. Nothing was done because no-one formally complained. That’s how it works. Formal processes do two things if designed well – they equalize the power imbalance between harasser and victim and they provide due process to establish whether an alleged perpetrator is innocent or guilty.

Naming names is important; prosecuting (for want of a better term) them through due process is essential. Anything less reduces the world to a Star Chamber, where a mere accusation is sufficient to establish guilt. McCarthyism cuts both right and left. So I’m not a big fan of those who think it is enough to give broad hints as to who might be guilty. It not only deprives the accused of a right to defend themselves, it risks drawing innocents – since hints never quite narrow it down – into undeserved ill-repute.  Frankly, if you are not prepared to name names and make formal complaints, perhaps silence is better than gutter gossip.

The equalization of power is the key thing here. I get that entirely. As a white middle-class male, I have a pretty privileged position. Harassment and bullying have not been a daily or even more than occasional part of my life. It is extraordinarily tough to change a culture that somehow ‘entitles’ people with power to use that power to harass, abuse, diminish, objectify, hurt, assault, crush people who, because of gender, class, race, age or inexperience, have less power. I spent two years as a union local president and many of the grievances I fought (and almost always won) came from managers who bullied their employees. Towards the end, I could actually say: look all this trouble is being caused by the same couple of supervisors; why don’t you do something about them? Senior management was remarkably reluctant to act.

This discussion has been going on for a very long time. Why doesn’t it change?  Well, it has changed.  Thirty years ago, during my union days, no one ever brought forward a sexual harassment complaint – not because it didn’t happen but because everyone knew that unless you actually had witnesses to a serious criminal act, there was no point.  Even workplace bullying wasn’t called that. Now bullying and harassment is one of the most common grievances in the public service – not because there is more of it but because, the world has changed and people actually have an expectation that something will be done about it.  Sadly, they are sometimes disappointed. It still takes courage to make a complaint and perseverance to see it through. If the harasser or bully is a woman, it becomes remarkably complex.

So, as unpleasant as it is for those who have to take the lead in making formal complaints, perhaps they can take comfort in the truth that they are the forerunners of change. Men (and women) who are simply ignorant or ill-socialized can be educated; even sociopaths can be trained to behave.  Beyond that we can continue to make strides in recognizing that all people have a right to respect, recognition, safety. 

And we can put in place the mechanisms that will make it easier for victims to complain while assuring the accused the right to a fair hearing in the open, rather than character assassination behind closed doors.

Maybe I should have stuck with saying nothing – but sometimes you just can’t.

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5 Responses to “I Have Nothing to Say”

  1. LeAmber R Kensley June 30, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    Thank you for not being silent. Your thoughts on this are well reasoned and give people the opportunity to think about others actions, and their own responses to them. What gets me, is there is also two sides to every story, and I know I am unpopular in my convictions that both sides need to be heard. Sometimes harassment happens out of ignorance and sometimes it happens because of entitlement…or it happens or any of a variety of reasons. Each case is unique and should be looked at. But for it to be looked at, it needs to be reported.

  2. Paula June 30, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    What I like in your blog post is the recognition that harassment and stupid comments are things that really bother people. I also appreciate your comment that it’s more helpful to name names and make formal complaints than it is to gossip trivially.
    Must thank you for when you were active in your union, treating such issues as if they were solvable, and not being part of the problem. It’s sometimes a little odd how often people need someone else to explain things to them or remind them of how to behave courteously.
    People often come to me or my partner with such questions… both people who have given offense as well as those who have been offended. Even good ol’ boys have pulled up their socks once it’s explained that “If somebody said that kind of thing to your sweet little sister/daughter/wife/mom and you just had to smack him for it — well, don’t you say that kind of thing to anyone, either. OK?”

  3. sarahremy June 30, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

    Very eloquent blog post. Education is a giant part of changing old-fashioned ‘norms’. But educating someone who resorts to harassing, racial (I’m thinking of Paula Dean, here) or bigoted remarks means one has to step into conflict, and some people prefer to bury their heads in the sand and pretend they didn’t hear or see anything amiss.

  4. Lenora Rose July 1, 2013 at 5:33 am #

    I think that I agree with you about 90%.

    I got to watch the process of investigating a complaint for which the final conclusion was that there was no legitimacy to the complaint. I was quite glad that both sides got to have their say, that the complaint was taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, and the person about whom the complaint was made had their name ultimately cleared publicly. (And the complainant’s name, while known to all investigating and on the formal report, was still kept discreet from those who did not Need to Know.)

    However, there are two things

    First, i believe very much that it’s *hard* for some people to come forward, and in any way denigrating them for failing to do so makes it that much more of a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation. Saying that not coming forward, but daring to talk about it leads to star chambers and mccarthyism has a whiff of blaming those for whom a formal complaint does not immediately feel like an option. The person who can’t or won’t make a complaint may be talking about it as a healing process. They may feel that it happened too long ago, it’s too late to make a complaint, but damned if they’ll let a random newbie walk into the same situation. If it is recent, they may even be part of working up the courage to make a more formal accusation. There are myriad motivations for talking other than “gossip”.

    While I’d rather see these things given formal complaints and thus get fully investigated, it’s more complicated to do than to simply say.

    Second, it was pointed out in one of the things you linked that it’s not always clear to a person making a complaint that a confidential report doesn’t just mean one in which the complainant’s name is elided while things are investigated, but in fact means no report and no paper trail (And sometimes no investigation) at all. It often sounds like a good compromise for a nervous person. Some people in business deliberately allow this misconception.

    • Bundoran Press July 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

      That’s a very good point. I guess what I was getting at was ‘public’ talking about it rather than talking about it privately as a healing process or to protect someone who might be heading into danger. I’ve seen that as well and certainly wouldn’t criticize anyone for doing either. It’s the public innuendo — as a story at a party or on-line — that I see as wrong.

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