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.