One Last Thought On The Hugo-Ross Debacle

The more I consider that situation (Jonathan Ross hosts Hugos, then doesn’t host Hugos), the more I think it’s starting to make sense how it moved so quickly. The narrative after has been one citing the “outrage police” and referring to the “lynch mob” and how they “cyber-bullied him” (which is a bit melodramatic to my mind, but so it goes) — but I think this narrative is far too simplistic and altogether a bit dismissive.

It was actually a perfect recipe for disaster. Here, check it:

a) Loncon would seem to go over its own committee’s heads to secure Jonathan Ross as a host.

b) Committee member Farah Mendlesohn resigns somewhat publicly over this. (Her resignation seems to now be private, though I think you can catch a bit of it here.)

c) Loncon decides to announce this over Twitter, which is like telling your mother you’re getting engaged over a text message HEY MOM WE R GETTIN ENGAGED L8R. This is chum splashing chum in the water, man: a good way to get a bad reaction. A public blog announcement at least gets you the room to say, “Here’s this guy, he’s great, here’s a video clip, here are his quotes.” Twitter is a river: fast-moving, gnashing rocks, angry fish.

d) Americans in general do not know who the fuck Jonathan Ross is. Seriously. No farking flarging fjording idea. This is a critical point and speaks to a divide between British fans (who know him and like him) and Americans (who only know him via a quick Google search).

e) That Google search yields controversy, because, HEY, THIS IS THE INTERNET, and we feed off controversy the way termites feed off of wood. Some of those links noting his controversies (which seems to be sexist and other -ists) are apparently born of various UK tabloids, but we aren’t particularly up to speed on which of your rags are tabloids and which are not — and even in this country, we still tend to spread around bullshit stories if we like the way they sound (“OH MY GOD GMO PIGS ARE LOOSE IN FUKUSHIMA AND THEY’RE RADIOACTIVE AND THESE RADIOACTIVE MUTANT MONSANTO HOGS ARE EATING PEOPLE, I read it on natural-GMO-diet-news-dot-com, which is also where I learned that if I shellac my body with okra snot, I will lose 50 lbs in one month guaranteed”). The Internet is the best at demonstrating our worst, and what it put on display for Ross was not his best — again, this is something a more measured and reasonable press release from Loncon might have undercut.

f) Women and minorities have a history of mistreatment within the SFF community. From “fake geek girls” to “SFWA bulletins” and on and on.

g) Women and minorities have a history of mistreatment and worse within SFF conventions. From the threat of creepiness to actual full-on creepiness to straight-up harassment.

h) The SFF community (or “community,” given that we aren’t all given membership cards and keys to the guesthouse) has weathered a series of controversies recently, which one might think makes them feel fatigued but what it does is create a kind of social PTSD as a result of everything. It puts everybody on kind of a hair trigger, looking for controversy not because we necessarily like those controversies but because they seem so goddamn common anymore.

i) When confronted on Twitter — somewhat aggressively, but again to call this insulting or cyberbullying is a bit of a stretch, YMMV, IMHO — Jonathan Ross’ response was to call women “stupid” and “small-minded.” This was not a guy who was like, “Hey, I understand, let me alleviate your concerns,” but rather a guy who reacted and bristled. Maybe he had the right — though one would hope a celebrity of his caliber would be less sensitive to it. But he did himself and the outraged no favors here — no effort to defuse the tension and, instead, made efforts to escalate them. Like winging a cup of gas on the campfire to try to put it out. (Few months ago, a SFF author who I won’t name  tweeted something that I didn’t see as an issue but some other folks there found problematic — and he handled the situation really quite marvelously, with humility and apology and communication rather than bluster and backtracking and anger. Even if he didn’t agree with the reaction, he defused tensions elegantly. Ross made no such efforts and seemed keen to take his ball and just go home.)

The point here isn’t that Ross wouldn’t have been a good fit — he was a fan, he seems like he might actually be a feminist, and a lot of UK folks seem quite keen on him — but instead the hope here is to try to suss out exactly why the shitstorm happened in the first place and also to try to conjure a little bit of empathy for everybody in this conversation. Because in the days that have followed I have seen real cyberbullying happen against the authors who spoke up about this on both sides of this debate. I think it’s better to have the discussion, however, then to resort to the shut-it-down door-closing phrases like “outrage police” and “lynch mobs.” That’s a good way to make somebody feel diminished and dismissed, and will only give oxygen to the fire.

It’s very easy to suggest that only the loudest, noisiest shit-stirrers were angry about this. But I saw a lot of authors and editors raise alarm over this — often in a very measured, non-alarmy way. This wasn’t just some torches-and-pitchforks mob — though certainly some acted that way, and that ugliness multiplied quickly.

This was something of a perfectly stupid storm in terms of how it escalated, is all I’m saying.

So, once more: cleave to empathy rather than insult.

Have the discussion instead of shutting the discussion down.

Otherwise, the genre and its authors and its fans are going to be that snake eating the crocodile: monsters just eating one another in the muck and the slurry.

Comments are open. Play nice, or I’ll shut the doors and lock you inside.

THEN I WILL RELEASE THE FERRETS.

114 comments

  • # The point here isnt that Ross wouldnt have been a good fit he was a fan, he seems like he
    # might actually be a feminist, and a lot of UK folks seem quite keen on him but instead the
    # hope here is to try to suss out exactly why the shitstorm happened in the first place

    Sir, I totally agree with you on this, but I don’t think anyone is going to like the answers. I’ve only been involved in this community for four years, and in that time I’ve had someone call for my murder for the first time in my life (yes, on twitter) over a comment that was completely misunderstood. We’ve had all kinds of trolls in this community, we’ve had all kinds of nastiness.

    We’ve created a culture of mob anger and accusation, that’s why this happened, that’s why other things keep happening too. It’s going to keep happening, and get worse and worse. We’ve got people in the genre now who feel entitled to accuse anyone of anything, and even make death-threats (and we’ve produced those people, we’ve harmed them, because we’ve encouraged them to be more and more extreme by applauding them when they say shocking things).

    # and also to try to conjure a little bit of empathy for everybody in this conversation.

    Is it a conversation? Does the SF community do conversations? I’ve seen little evidence that it does.

    # Because in the days that have followed I have seen real cyberbullying happen against
    # the authors who spoke up about this on both sides of this debate.

    I’ve not seen this in this case, but I don’t doubt it, I don’t need to see it because I was seeing it (and for a while experiencing it) in the years before this happened. And when I got my experience, lots of other people told me (“let me tell you what happened to me. But don’t tell anyone I told you.”). Things are out of control. This episode is just the latest in an escalting series.

    # I think its better to have the discussion, however, then to resort to the shut-it-down door-closing
    # phrases like outrage police and lynch mobs. Thats a good way to make somebody feel diminished
    # and dismissed, and will only give oxygen to the fire.

    you’re right, but what about door-closing phrases like “you’re racist scum” or “check your privilige”? The genre has permitted, even supported these for years. It has created an ideology of self-righteous accusation that many people will find themselves unable to put aside now. We’ve collectively let ourselves fall into bad habits. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in this community try to understand what the other person was trying to say, normally they just slot them straight into a pre-formed stereotype. And there’s so much radical theory in play that demonizes people before they say anything, that I don’t see how things can get much better.

    Finally, for a lot of critics and bloggers, vicious accusation is the way to get attention, to get noticed and get ahead. Most of the twitterstorms we’ve had previously surely raised the profile of the people involved in them. If you denounce someone one your blog, it’s likely to get you traffic. It’s not that people really think in quite such a mercenary manner (though I’m sure some do) it’s that people don’t think too hard about what they’re doing if the mob keeps cheering them on.

    # Its very easy to suggest that only the loudest, noisiest shit-stirrers were angry about this.

    This is the thing. I don’t think the problem here is individuals. Sometimes it seems to be, because an individual is doing a thing. But that individual is doing that thing because they’re embedded in a culture that has encouraged and conditioned them to do the thing. Nor am I saying that we are not all thinking people, but 90% of the time we’re not, 90% of the time anyone is running on a kind of socially-conditioned autopilot. If a culture sends you signals that it’s okay to do this, or that, then you pick those signals up without realizing.

    I’ve said it elsewhere, and I’ll say it here: SF has the most intollerant, heavy-handed and sometimes hypocritical poltiical culture that I’ve ever seen, and it’s only going to get worse unless we take ownership of that fact (I will admit I’ve no idea what can be done about it, but I think the first thing you have to do in anger management, is admit you have a problem).

    # This wasnt just some torches-and-pitchforks mob though certainly some acted that way,
    # and that ugliness multiplied quickly.
    #This was something of a perfectly stupid storm in terms of how it escalated, is all Im saying.

    Another thing that we have to recognize is in the mix here, is social media. That’s the new thing on the block, and it changes how things work, and we have to change our behavior to match.

    # Have the discussion instead of shutting the discussion down.

    Sir, I don’t know you, and I don’t know where you’ve stood on things in the past, but even if we put my own experiences aside, I’ve now seen a lot of cases where my fellow writers have come under fire, and no-one called for this level of restraint. I agree with what you’re saying here, but it’s just, are we going to apply this level of civility to everything? Because we need to. Or, maybe not to everything, I can think of one or two things that perhaps require (uh, I’ve started to hate that word) a harsh response. But could we at least stop crucifying writers for things they’ve written? If all we’re going to do is apply it now, and then when this latest thing has blown over, go back to business-as-usual, then there’s almost no point to applying it at all.

    # Otherwise, the genre and its authors and its fans are going to be that snake eating the
    # crocodile: monsters just eating one another in the muck and the slurry.

    Perhaps I am overly negative, but I’ve felt this community got there a long time ago. I’m now pretty convinced that the way it will change, if it does, will be by attracting serious outside attention, and then having this image of us (monsters, muck and slurry (and not even cool-looking monsters)) splurged across the media. Sooner or later someone is going to pick a fight with an outside power (this got pretty close) and when that happens, and someone comes in and takes the things that people habitually say in this community, and puts them on the front page of the tabloid press, it’s going to be a bloodbath.

    Colum

    • Yeh, a lot of good points in there. I think one of the problems is that you can say things, in jest, to friends that are un-PC or a bit dodgy and get away with them because they know you and you know them. This is especially true in Britain where we have a whole grey area of withering sarcasm, where we can be mock mean in a way that is tacitly understood not to be serious. You just can’t do that on line because other English speakers will take what you say absolutely at face value.

      Furthermore, if you indulge yourself in either of those methods of expression written down on line, it’s perfectly possible for thousands of people who don’t know you to ‘overhear’. I think this might be a part of how things get extreme. People speak their thoughts, without thinking it through or being aware of how it might be taken by a stranger. Someone reads it totally differently and it escalates. I think that’s where a lot of the shit comes from, people speaking without thinking and reacting without attempting to understand.

      Once it hits a certain point, the eye of the storm becomes dehumanised. We forget they are the, often, innocently spoken words of a human or that the figure of our rage is human.

      Perhaps this is not so much the case with the shit storm about Jonathon Ross but in the case of that girl in Blackpool who couldn’t spell Obama’s name… very much so. By the end of that it was quite clear that people had forgotten that a human, a 21 year old girl, spoke those words in innocence with no malice aforethought.

      It’s a different way of thinking, and we need to evolve it; fast.

      cheers

      MTM

  • The LonCon chairs announced the decision to make Ross the Master of Ceremonies* via a press release Saturday morning. It was literally the first thing in my mailbox when I woke up. So saying “Loncon decides to announce this over Twitter” is not correct.

    I believe that Farah’s letter of resignation from the Committee was sent after the press release.

    Other than that nitpick, I found myself nodding in agreement a lot.

    *Why not “toastmaster”? “MC” has been used precisely twice in the last 30 years of Worldcons and not much more commonly before that.

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