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WisCon: On transparency, jurisprudence, and responsibility.
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The context of this post will be obvious to some people following me, and a complete mystery to others. The short version is that in 2013, a man named James Frenkel--then an editor at Tor, and a big name in the circles surrounding the literary-slanted sci-fi/fantasy con WisCon--was the subject of two formal harassment/abuse reports, which were part of an ongoing pattern of behavior going back decades.

Despite the presence of multiple unrelated formal reports and despite the feminist and progressive slant that WisCon has branded itself with, Frenkel was allowed to attend WisCon 38, where he gave the excuse for his presence that he was trying to "redeem" himself while also insisting that to not go would be to admit guilt.

If there is a single, simple reason why he wasn't barred, it's because no one had barred him. Supposedly, there was no policy or process in place to handle this. Since WisCon 38, committees were formed. Meetings were held. Decisions were made, and announced.

And while it's now (provisionally) certain that he won't be in attendance at WisCon 39, little else seems certain.

Other people have written about the specifics of the situation with WisCon, the history of James Frenkel, and what the decision (provisionally) and the way the case was handled implies.

My reason for making this post is to address something else. One phrase I keep seeing from those involved is "we're trying to be transparent", but this is one of the least transparent processes I have ever seen. I see the intention to be transparent, but I don't see the resulting transparency.

And that's because...

Without clarity, there can be no transparency.

There are two terms you might remember from elementary physics, when we first learned about light and the properties of matter: transparent and translucent. A transparent object is one that you can see through. A translucent object passes light through, but not with sufficient clarity to see what's going on behind it. A house might have transparent windows in most of the rooms, but frosted ones--translucent ones--in the bathroom.

The difference is that when someone is in most rooms with the light on, you can look through the window and see who's in the room and what's going on, but when someone goes into the bathroom and turns on the light, you can at most make out a vague shape. You don't know who's in there or what's going on.

Obviously, this is great for privacy, which is why the frosted windows tend to turn up in places like bathrooms.

The difference between transparent and translucent is clear, and by that I mean, the difference is that transparent surfaces are clear while translucent ones are not.

To put it quite simply: transparency without clarity is meaningless. It's not transparent.

As an institution, WisCon is a multiplicity of entities. There is the corporate parent organization SF3, there is the volunteer/member-staffed Convention Committee (ConComm), there is a team for the convention tasked with Safety and a head of that team, there is a sub-committee tasked with overseeing a harassment policy (I've seen this group referred to as HarPolComm, and the fact that this name is sometimes used without explanation is as perfect an example of non-clarity as one could dream of), and there is a sub-committee that was convened specifically to deal with the reports of harassment by James Frenkel.

In a conversation about this topic, people party to the decision(s) made might refer to "safety" without specifying who they meant (a person? the team? the general concept?), or "the committee", or "the sub-committee". No matter how transparent they are being, they are not being clear.

The problem is exacerbated when someone who has been immersed in an ongoing closed conversation where a kind of shorthand understanding develops comes out and starts referring to these entities in the same off-hand way that they've grown accustomed to speaking of them. This is a great and recurring problem of the human condition: if we do not stop to consider the point of view of others, then we will always tend to take for granted anything that comes naturally to us or has become second nature. Or to put it more shortly, if I know what I'm talking about, then ipso facto, you know what I'm talking about.

We see this phenomenon in the statement released by the Frenkel sub-committee. My informal observation is that the farther someone was from the actual decision, the less likely they are to understand it in the same way that the drafters apparently intended. This is a serious red flag that the text does not say what the authors think it says.

There is a principle of game design/testing that I cleave to, which is that a tabletop game should always be tested by people who had no hand in its creation. If a perfect stranger can't sit down with the rules and, with no prompting or hints except what's in the pages of the book, play the game as written, then the game as written doesn't work.

For purposes of clarity, the worst drafted line of the sub-committee's decision on Jim Frenkel is the most important: WisCon will (provisionally) not allow Jim Frenkel to return for a period of four years (until after WisCon 42 in 2018).

The "provisionally" there could mean anything: he's provisionally not allowed, the term is provisionally four years in the sense that it might be longer, the term is provisionally four years in the sense that it might be shorter. The lines meant to clarify it seem to imply the last possibility: This is "provisional" because if Jim Frenkel chooses to present substantive, grounded evidence of behavioral and attitude improvement between the end of WisCon 39 in 2015 and the end of the four-year provisional period, WisCon will entertain that evidence. We will also take into account any reports of continued problematic behavior.

Now, I've since been told that the whole point of the four year period is that he's legally constrained from submitting such evidence until the end of the period, which seems like the opposite of what's being conveyed here, which is the expectation that he should be spending the time between 2015 and 2018 making his case.

So we've got two very carelessly placed modifiers here, the initial "provisionally" and the phrase beginning with "between". If you already know the intended meaning or you have the expectation that it will be something similar to this, you can read the sub-committee's statement to mean that he's definitely banned for a minimum of four years, and after that he must show substantial evidence of change before re-admission will be considered.

Without that context, the "provisionally" seems very menacing, and the whole thing appears very wishy-washy, with the next paragraph (that spells out that his re-admission is not guaranteed at any time) seeming like a mere addendum, and thus so much-behind covering.

However you parse it, we have a situation where three days after a decision was unveiled whose existence had been announced a week in advance, there is no clear consensus about what it's supposed to mean.

Those of us who have asked have been unofficially told that the sub-committee is working on some clarifying language to release, but there has been no official announcement. Not even an "unofficial official" announcement posted in the LJ/DW communities, where most people read the initial wording of the decision.

Those I've asked about this have basically said that it's not their place, as 1/5th of the sub-committee, to make such a statement.

This brings me to my next point.

Many hands make light responsibility.

I think I won't be saying anything new or controversial when I say that a fundamental problem over the years in dealing with Jim Frenkel and other similar people and situations is that no one (at least no one in a position of power) wants to be responsible for the decision that so many people recognize as necessary.

As others have observed, an outbreak of norovirus one year that threatened the con was dealt with swiftly with effective countermeasures for future cons, and a newcomer to the con who came to troll by taking pictures without people's awareness or consent and post them to the internet was banned without deliberation, handwringing, fanfare, or the convocation of a special committee.

But a man who occupied a position of importance in publishing, a man who was part of the local progressive scene, a man who had been part of WisCon for far longer than many of the people writing about this (myself included) have been aware the con existed... no one wanted to be the one to show him the door, or even to take a hard line with him.

This same phenomenon is probably responsible for the "confusion" about why he was allowed to attend WisCon 38 after having two formal reports lodged against him in conjunction with WisCon 37; no one wanted to be the one to give him the boot, but no one wanted to admit responsibility for not having done so.

The formation of select sub-committee tasked exclusively with The Problem of James Frenkel should have been the final answer to that problem, but we still see the same diffusion of responsibility, the same unwillingness to act. We see this in the blame being placed on other entities and previous incarnations of the current entities. We see this in the unwillingness of the sub-committee members--even ones who have been actively engaging with critics and disappointed members--to be the one to say, officially and on the record, "We're sorry. We fumbled this. Another announcement will be forthcoming, we just really want to make sure we get it right."

And we see it in how the sub-committee apparently approached its task, which was more concerned with creating a formal process that can be generalized to other cases than dealing with the specific case that was in front of them, and more concerned with deciding the disposition the two formal reports they had in front of them than the problem that had resulted in those reports.

This brings me to my third point, which is...

When lay organizations try to focus on jurisprudence, they end up focusing more on juris than prudence.

In cases like this (including this case), the concept of "due process" is often invoked. Other people--including lawyers and barristers--have explained how easily this goes awry, when laypeople try to imitate the outward flourishes of the legal apparatus without understanding their context and purpose.

If we follow the purpose of the narrowest entity involved--the sub-committee on James Frenkel--back to its point of genesis, we find that the ultimate purpose here is the safety and comfort of the membership of WisCon. We can trace back further to find that the purpose of WisCon is to be an inclusive, feminist-centered version of the literary/science fiction convention experience.

Some members of the sub-committee were evidently unaware of the larger context; others were not, but chose to focus on the reports that were on the table, even to the point that other information on other cases involving Frenkel that had been evidently solicited was apparently then disregarded.

Whatever the proximate cause of the sub-committee was, their ultimate purpose--the purpose of their purpose--was to see to the safety of WisCon's membership. In focusing their deliberations and decision narrowly on the content of the two specific reports that resulted in their sub-committee being convened, they failed.

They failed in that their decision may be (again, clarification is needed) inadequate to the task of keeping a (sometimes potentially violent, and by "potentially" I mean that he literally threw a book at a woman's head and missed) serial harasser of women out of the convention space, and they failed in that their conduct and communication has not done anything to repair the harm done or reassure those who have reason to fear more harm.

This entry automatically cross-posted from http://alexandraerin.dreamwidth.org/584328.html. Comment hither or thither. Void where yon.


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