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Saturday, March 01, 2014

Post-Post-Event Thoughts on Loncon3 and Jonathan Ross

Jonathan Ross is not hosting the Hugos this year.  He's made what I think is the right decision and stepped down.  If you have no idea what I'm talking about, then you missed all the "fun" on Twitter.  You can get a decent overview of the situation over at The Wertzone.

In any case, what I'm going to talk about here aren't the things everyone was throwing out on Twitter -- mostly.  Here, I'm interested in some of the whys and hows and whats that are underneath all of this and why, ultimately, Jonathan Ross was a poor choice within the current climate of sf/f.

First, I'll say that I hold no animosity towards Ross.  I don't know the man, as you'd expect, and have, in fact, viewed some of his material and found him rather amusing.  I also agree with Adam Whitehead that the motivation to bring in Ross, who himself is a supporter of sf/f and its various properties, is a good one:  high profile tv personality who happens to be a vocal fan = good for business.

But the problem Ross posed was two fold:  

1) He is, as Whitehead and Farah Mendlesohn (who stepped down from the Worldcon committee over Ross' appointment) and others have noted, a divisive figure, most notably because his comedy has frequently gotten him into trouble.  You can read about some of that on his Wikipedia page or here.

If I'm fair to you and myself, I have found some of his more offensive jokes humorous, though not necessarily the ones most have cited (mostly because I wasn't there and don't have the full context in which these things were said).  In fact, I've enjoyed other shock comedians such as Jimmy Carr from time to time, though even he crosses lines I just can't handle (rape jokes are not funny to me).  The question, in my mind, is not whether it personally offends me or other individuals, but the repercussions such offense has on the larger community.  I think it was Kate Elliot who noted on Twitter that individual acts aren't the problem, but a collection of those acts adding up to a whole.  Which leads me to...

2) The sf/f community is, as Charlie Stross rightly asserts, in the middle of a serious discussion/debate about inclusion (a.k.a. house cleaning).  Though I seriously doubt that Ross would have treated sf/f fans with ridicule, there is the very real problem that Ross' public profile poses for sf/f fans:  in certain respects, his comments damage the potential for a safe space.  It doesn't matter that Ross' comments are frequently meant in jest.  We live in a society where these types of things are also said with the utmost seriousness, such that people who are attacked for (seemingly) being "overweight" or "white and adopting non-white children," for example, do not necessarily feel these jokes as jokes.  For them, these sorts of comments are not unlike pouring lemon juice in a wound and saying "but it was only a joke; why did it hurt you so much?"  This is why Seanan McGuire went on her mini-Twitter rant about feeling anything but safe at the Hugos.  She has previously been in that beautiful front row for nominees, and may appear there again in the future.  She is a prime example of this problem.

There is also another side to this:  in the interest of creating inclusive spaces for people, we have to realize that in the absence of those spaces, humorous pokes at previously excluded individuals just reminds them how much they are not in this community.  Everyone's experience varies, of course, but the sad fact is that we do not exist in an sf/f community which has set aside its sexist past en total (or its racism, for that matter).  It's still here, albeit missing one of its scaled legs.  It's still fighting to keep things like they were.  That's why there is such a concerted effort to push sf/f forward so those excluded-now-included groups can feel at home.

However, the pain doesn't go away just because we include people.  The pain goes away when their inclusion is coupled with a sense of safety:  the idea that you won't be harmed, cast out, or burned for being a woman or person of color; that any criticism you receive is, with exception, appropriate, not a reflection of an individual's opinion of you based on factors you cannot control.  That your weight or your health conditions are not the subject of public scrutiny as a method for discarding your worth as a contributor to the community.

Our community is not safe yet.  It's not.  Seanan McGuire doesn't have the benefit I have:  she doesn't always feel safe because things happen to remind her how far away from others she is/was/might be/could be.  Me?  I'm going to be cast out if I say something monumentally stupid.  If I do something horrible.  I'll be cast out because I did something, not because I've got some stuff dangling between my legs or because of my heritage or because of where I was born.  That's an important distinction.

Now, does this mean Ross can never be a part of sf/f?  No.  Does this mean he can never host the awards?  No.  But it does mean that the decisions our entities make need to keep in mind their long term impact.  I'm not sure Ross would have been so good for sf/f.  He might have brought a lot of attention with him, but it's also possible he would have done a lot of damage to a field which is still trying to figure out how it can include everyone without pissing on everyone's toes.  We're just not there yet.  Maybe one day soon.  Then, perhaps Ross will return.


A few corrections from my day of Tweeting:
  • I originally argued, as many have, that Ross shouldn't host because he's not a fan.  I was flat wrong on that front, and tried to correct that as soon as I could, mostly by way of correcting others who fell into the same trap.  Additionally, it seems to me that the host doesn't necessarily need to be a fan to qualify.  That is that someone who, perhaps, likes some sf/f properties, but is not an uber fan could still do the job justice.  In that respect, I think the "not one of us" argument should be discarded whole hat.  It's stupid and I am sorry I contributed to it.
  • I'm not convinced that Ross is a sexist himself.  The primary reason for this is that I think it is necessary to disentangle actions from belief.  One can engage in sexist behavior and not themselves believe that women are inferior or deserve different treatment or what have you.  We live in a culture in which certain behaviors are encoded into our daily lives, such that it is quite difficult to eradicate sexism from our activities in the world.  There might be more information on Ross that could sway me, but I'll keep the distinction until later.
  • I do think it's worth noting that the clincher for me was Ross' response to his detractors, in which he sometimes dismissed them as unworthy of inclusion.  He told one critic that they could sell him their Worldcon membership so someone so stupid wouldn't be there.  This is one of those moments when comedy -- if that is, in fact, what he was doing -- really doesn't work... Perhaps Ross simply didn't understand the field as it currently stands, and so he stepped into it instead of taking a different route.  I don't know if he could have allayed fears that he would bring unwanted criticism to the awards, though.
  • It's also unfortunate that such a high profile individual would bring such controversy to the awards.  That's expected, of course, since Ross has stepped into it a number of times throughout his career.  I wonder if this is what we should expect in almost every high profile cases.  But then I think about other major figures who are somehow tied to our field, and I realize there's a sea of folks out there who would be perfect for the Hugos...

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