Speak up for those who speak up

So it’s been a wild ride in the last day–I had a tweet go viral to a level I’ve never had before, and on a topic where I got vitriol as well as support and randomness. (Oh, the internet.) My tweet was about remembering that Christine Blasey Ford is a person, an actual human being with a life outside all this. And to that I want to add:

You know people in your field or in your region who have spoken up about rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. You do. We all do. One of the things I would really like to ask you to do for them is talk about them a) on the internet and b) in ways that are not about the person who hurt them or the way that person hurt them.

When you do a search on the name of someone who has reported these crimes, quite often the first hits will be about the crimes. So the person will be linked with their accuser’s name, sometimes the place or event where they were assaulted (/raped/harassed), and the key words “rape,” “harassment,” “assault,” etc. It’s good to talk about these things, to try to stop them from happening again. It’s good to bring them to the light. But it’s really not cool when someone has to choose between keeping them secret and being defined by the event they reported. Being defined by someone else’s bad choices about them.

This is one of those cases where the silence of bystanders is not enough. For someone at the national level, you will probably not be able to do anything about the associations with them. Christine Blasey Ford will be linked to Brett Kavanaugh now, period; that’s what you’ll find when you look for her. But in smaller communities, more self-contained fields, there’s absolutely still a chance to fight back against defining victims solely as victims. There’s still a chance to paint a fuller picture. And we should.

Because our culture is really, truly broken on the subject of status and hierarchy, some people thought I was saying that Christine Blasey Ford matters as a person only because she’s a professor and a psychologist. No. We all matter as people. We all have individual details that matter. If someone has what the outside world looks upon as achievements, great! Name them! But getting our own heads worked back around to remember that people matter as people is important, too. So you can talk about Person A as a family member, a friend, a volunteer, a person who has their particular hobbies. It is worth saying “A makes pickles” or “B sings in the choir,” as well as “C is an accomplished physician,” “D writes beautiful poetry.” All of it. All of it counts. All of it matters. Being able to be seen as multifaceted, whole human beings who make choices matters even when those choices aren’t traditionally high-status.

So make a point of mentioning it. “I read E’s latest book, and it was so great!” So that E will be associated with “book” and possibly even the book title, not just with “harassment,” “assault,” the assailant’s name. And in those posts I do not mention the harassment, the assault, the rape. So that there can be some chance of not every single thing E accomplishes being colored by it.

Fighting this stuff directly matters. But the long-term support we can have for each other matters also. Let’s back each other up when we are victims, yes, definitely–but also let’s help people not be defined as that, but as the positive, worthwhile things they do instead.

“We’re like a faaaaamily.”

Perhaps you saw the actor Jason Bateman disgracing himself and his upbringing around the internet recently, rushing to defend a male co-worker’s abusive behavior with bleats about faaaamily and process while the abused female co-worker cried and struggled to find space in the conversation at all. That hit pretty close to home for me, because two years ago I listened to a convention chair complaining from the dais at opening ceremonies that we shouldn’t even have to have a Safety Officer because we’re like a faaaamily. I said, in a bright, clear voice, “Because everyone knows abuse never happens in families!” And the people around me grimaced, and some of them laughed in the way that you do when something is not funny.

But I want to come back to it again just to say no to it again. No. No, again.

I am a big believer in chosen family. A startlingly large percentage of the people I mean when I say “my family” are no biological, legal, or marital relation to me; even the tag “my cousin” most often applies to a woman who is, in fact, only my cousin as a relationship approximation–which, considering how many cousins I have through biology, legal adoption, and marriage, is quite a feat.

But when people push it on you from the outside. When, instead of looking at a particular friend and saying, aww, cousin, sibling, auntie–you have someone in authority telling you: you must view this set of people in that fashion. That is an absolute red flag. And even when it’s someone who is on equal footing with you, it’s worth checking: when you choose to be family, do you mean the same things by family? are you choosing the same things? The more you’re choosing en masse–choosing one particular convention or “fandom” as your family–the less you can be sure that you are. And the more you can be pretty much certain that at least one person in that group hears “family” and thinks “people who aren’t allowed to have boundaries with me” or “people who aren’t allowed to tell anybody when I hurt them” or some set of hierarchies that you might not even be able to describe once you’ve been experiencing it for years.

Sometimes the people who are most toxic about a group being a family are the ones who are sincere about it. Other times it’s people who don’t mean a word of it but are perfectly happy to weaponize it against others. Either way: especially when it’s someone speaking to a large group–especially if they haven’t met all the members of that large group–it’s time to be skeptical.

Because abuse does happen in families. Abuse gets swept under the rug in families. But even not up to that point, some families have horrible dynamics about how no one young is worth listening to, or about never visiting the elderly, or both. Some families have horrible dynamics about who does all the work and who gets to put their feet up. And–especially in times like the interview with Jason Bateman and his co-workers. Especially in moments like the con chair at that convention undermining the safety officer. The question is: why are they using this now. To what end. Who benefits, if they start leaning on family rhetoric.

It’s really great to have chosen family. It really is. My godkids’ parents sat down with us before we accepted the job, and we talked it through: what does this commitment mean to all of us, are we on the same page, because this is a role that culturally and personally varies so much. Those people are my family. I am so glad of them every day. I really, really don’t want to undermine anyone’s actual chosen family with this post. I just want to flag how prevalent this is, in how many industries.

And if you go to report harassment, assault, abuse of any kind, and they invoke family rhetoric to try to minimize what you are reporting, THIS IS WRONG. THEY ARE WRONG. Even if they are your actual family. Even if they are your family in every way, even if they birthed you and raised you and were there for you on holidays and happy occasions and sad ones and everything a family can be. If your actual family treats you that way, I am so, so sorry. But I need you to know that THEY ARE WRONG TO DO IT.

And if someone who is not in any of those ways your actual family pulls out the “we are family” like you’re supposed to dance out of the end of “The Birdcage” with them? NOT ONLY NO BUT HELL NO. NO MORE. NO MORE OF THIS. WE ARE DONE.

It’s not your turn, sir.

I had a really good time at ConFusion, and I am planning to go back next year. My friends are great. The programming was lovely. Yay concom. Yay ConFusion. I put that at the beginning so that you will have the context: general positive feeling, sense that the con has handled things well and is a good place to be, overall.

So let’s talk about my second panel, Disaster Response in SFF. I was moderating. A gentleman in the audience had enough of the free-flowing discussion provided by the panelists, apparently. He did not wait for Q&A or even raise his hand. He just jumped right in, interrupting the panel to lecture us with a long, hostile, rambling comment on his own theories of where this panel should go and how wrong we all were for not going there.

When we tried to address this gently but firmly, the individual was having none. He leapt into the lack-of-breach again to angrily and belligerently espouse his viewpoint. It was fairly clear that he felt that he got to direct the content of the panel, that not only did he get a voice but that he got it whenever he wanted and to the exclusion of the people who were actually on the panel, and that we were offending his sensibilities by having our panel discussion instead of the one he controlled.

At that point I had had enough and instructed him that it was time for him to let the panelists return to our discussion. With visible incredulity, he asked, “Are you cutting me off?” I told him that, as I had never called on him in the first place, I was indeed. Patrick Nielsen Hayden was one of the panelists, and he backed me up and pointed out that it was not Q&A period and not his turn to talk. This man got up and stormed out in a huff.

He went down to complain to ops about me, volubly and at length.

Meanwhile, the panel went on with some spirit, and at the end of the actual Q&A an audience member (note: not a plant!) used their turn to talk to call for a round of applause for my moderating. People kept thanking me for how I handled it. Nice of them. I note this because I was not the one who was honestly shocked at how extreme and persistent his behavior was. This was not Standard Fannish Interruption.

The same guy came into the Visions of Positive Masculinity panel to make a very similar political point. For some reason, he was able to 1) wait until the Q&A portion of the panel; 2) phrase his idea in the form of a brief and civil question; 3) not pitch a fit and storm out even though the panelists on that panel openly mocked him. The moderator of that panel has in my estimate at least six inches of height on me. He is male. All the other panelists on that panel were also male, of varying sizes and shapes. He did not complain about any of them despite the fact that they basically dismissed his idea with derisive laughter.

Okay. So. I talked to some friends, some of whom were involved with the concom/staff, and given what I was saying and what they were hearing about his behavior, they encouraged me to file an incident report. ConFusion’s ops team did everything right here. Everything. They made sure that I was seated comfortably, offered water, offered my choice of report formats (written or out loud), that I had a person with whom I was comfortable with me for the whole time, that I could discuss my statement rather than just turning it in and not knowing whether it was getting any attention. They asked after my safety and comfort and what would make me feel safe and comfortable going forward at the con.

Here’s what felt like a sea change to me. Here’s what makes me write about this: they did not minimize OR maximize response. They were proactively interested in an incident of someone being rude and disruptive. At that point I was hoping that just having the incident report on file would be enough, that not having further confrontation would allow this person to go on with his con and simmer down, focus on time with friends, other panels, etc.

That person came to the next panel I was on, Saturday morning, and the moderator (not me) was very firm about what type of questions and commentary would and would not be allowed. The disruptive man followed me out of the room after the panel. I was leaving with two male friends. He sort of lurked in the elevator lobby glaring at me and then left. He was associated with a particular fan group that must gather somewhere, but I don’t know where: I didn’t see them around con space much, and they’re visible as a group. So that allowed me to relax somewhat, knowing that this guy was off with his buddies, (I hoped) settling himself down and focusing on something else. (Turns out nope. But I hoped.)

I’m going to be careful about how I put this next part, because it’s not my story to tell: he approached someone involved with the con to complain about me again on Sunday morning. Please note that the original incident was Friday afternoon and that I did not say or do another thing related to him. But Sunday morning he felt the need to approach someone to lodge another complaint that I would not let him disrupt the Friday afternoon panel. This is the part where I feel the need to be vague: his behavior then escalated with that person. It is being handled. His continued fixation and escalation are disturbing to me, and I’m very glad that the concom/persons formally associated with the con are handling it well thus far, as well as, of course, very grateful for my friends and their support. (Oh friends. Oh, thank you, thank you, friends.)

So here’s why I’m posting this:

1. This would have been a totally different experience at many cons. I didn’t go to ConFusion ten years ago, but I expect it would have been a totally different experience at ConFusion ten years ago. There used to be a reluctance in fandom to handle anything formally. Don’t come into my mentions saying, “Not at MY con,” because you know very well it’s true, there was ALWAYS a reluctance to handle anything formally that was not a direct assault charge (and sometimes even then). “Are you sure you want to make a thing of this” was practically a mantra, and we all knew it. The difference between a convention that went into “are you really going to make us deal with this?” mode and a convention that did not want to escalate but also understood that this was in fact theirs to deal with was astonishing.

And it did not require assuming that any of the bad behaviors were definitely going to get worse at any point. I am frustrated with how often discussions of bad behavior at cons–sexual harassment or other behaviors–behave as though it’s a binary system, wherein people are cast into the outer darkness at the first peep, the first nasty glare. The only bad thing that happened to this man before his last escalation was that nobody allowed him to disrupt a panel and recenter it on his own views. That’s it. That was his negative consequence. But my positive consequence was that I knew that the convention had my back if things got worse.

Yes, I had my friends. I am so very, very grateful for my friends. But my friends and I could go on with our con without them making up a guard roster wherein I never went up to my room to drop my coat off alone, never dashed for a panel leaving one group of friends in the lobby to meet up with another in programming space. When you’ve had a bad interaction and the person from it turns up in the places he can easily find you, follows you out of them…that’s the sort of precaution your friend-group starts to assemble in a double-quick hurry.

I’ve had to be escorted everywhere for disability reasons, before I was cleared to use my cane on bad vertigo days. It comes with pitfalls. Among them: are you going to lean on your absolute closest friends for every single escort duty? If not, are the outer circle group members you’ve just met actually as trustworthy as you hope? (Answer from past experience: no. No they are not. Some of them will use this opportunity to do things to you on the theory that, hey, it’ll be better than what you’re afraid of from other people.) But even aside from that, it’s annoying. And it’s the sort of thing that adults should not have to do in a public place.

There have always been real consequences to people in my position for experiencing something like this. When you’re running an event like this, you get to choose whether there are real consequences to people in his position.

2. This was not sexual harassment. But it was gendered.

The person he approached to complain about me on Sunday was, like me, wearing some of the trappings of traditional femininity. The people who laughed in his face Friday afternoon with no complaints, no consequences to themselves? All male. All male and all masculine. And yes, I was the moderator on my panel–but he didn’t say a word about Patrick cheerfully saying, “Bye!” to him as he departed, or about Patrick backing up my moderating. There was no complaint about Patrick. It was all me.

I’ll cope with it. That’s fine. But see it for what it is.

Dealing with sexual harassment in convention spaces is hugely important. It has been hugely important for me personally. But don’t for a moment make the mistake of thinking that it is the only gendered interaction that matters. And don’t think for a moment that the dynamic would be the same if he’d decided to turn up glaring with Patrick or treat a male concom member the way he did the person on Sunday. It’s no accident he didn’t try–and so conventions need to be equally deliberate in their handling of this sort of thing. ConFusion was, and I thank them for it.

3. If our situations had been reversed, I would have had the same options as the early part of his behavior. Let me repeat that: in his position. I could have tried exactly the same things and seen what would have resulted.

Let me explain.

Let’s say that I was in the audience of a panel where the panelists were, instead of talking about how people tend to pull together in times of disaster (our actual topic of discussion, that offended him so), talking about something that offended my sensibilities to the point where I had to speak out. Let’s say I was in the audience of a panel about moderating, for example! And they were saying that women are just not capable of moderating well because we’re too weak!

I would absolutely have the option of speaking out of turn. Of not waiting for the Q&A portion of the panel to open my mouth and say, wow, you are so wrong, that could not be wrong-er. The moderator could then shut me down. And then I could take my complaint to ops and explain to them what happened, give them my side of the story, and they could decide what they felt their convention’s stance was on a moderator behaving in that fashion was.

And if the con decided that yes, that’s fine, that’s who we are as a con, I could take my woes to my friends, to the internet, etc. and explain what happened, what I said, what they said, what everyone’s position was. It’s the part where you then follow the person, attempt to intimidate the person, lodge repeated complaints about behavior that has not changed, and escalate with other people about their original behavior that really is…not an acceptable option.

This dude’s position, as near as I can describe it, was that fiction is boring if people treat each other decently. He brought that position to Disaster Relief in SFF and to Positive Visions of Masculinity. His other de facto position seemed to be that if some woman was running the panel he shouldn’t have to wait to talk, and that her making him wait his turn was intolerable enough to ruin his entire weekend and make a stab at ruining the weekends of others.

He didn’t succeed at the last part. And that was substantially because the ConFusion staff and concom did not let it. Also my friends did not let it and I did not let it. But: you have to decide for yourself what’s worth breaking the rules of discourse. You can’t be surprised if other people don’t agree with you if you don’t give them a good solid reason to agree with you. If you break the rules of discourse, you deal with the consequences of breaking those rules, even if you are in the right.

I understand that by posting about this, I risk having some people come in and argue with me, because I have used words like “angry” and “hostile” that require me to evaluate tone and behavior and allow people who were not present to decide that I must automatically be wrong. Perhaps he was not staring at me angrily when he followed me to the elevator lobby! Perhaps his face is always like that and he just had to be there! Perhaps the escalation I have not specified was utterly innocent also! (Hint: it was not.) Perhaps I am a sensitive snowflake who was utterly in the wrong and he is utterly in the right and everything would be fine if only I had not messed it up and then pointed out that it was messed up! Well. I am tired of that, and I’m not doing it any more.

I understand that some of you are very nervous that you won’t be able to read tone, either in yourself or in other people. That you will get deemed A Bad Person for reasons that you do not understand, and cast into the outer darkness thereby. Please note that that is not what happened here. If all that had happened is that this person had gotten angry and rude in my panel and stormed out–all of which, I grant, are tone readings–I would not be posting now. There were multiple escalations throughout the weekend. And still I have not declared him to be A Bad Person. Nor, you will note, have I named him to the internet. What I have done is named his behavior. More than that, I have described the excellent and supportive behavior of the convention–that latter is why I am posting in the first place.

I have a dear friend who spends a great deal of time turning backflips trying to come up with reasons why someone’s bad behavior might not be bad. Or why it might not be as bad as it seems. And I keep having to explain to him that what this means is that he is shifting the badness to other people, specifically to the people who were affected by it. That if it’s fine for someone much larger than me to complain about me doing my designated job, then follow me and glower at me, then it follows that I am being unreasonable to object to this.

We’d all like to think that conventions will handle the big dramatic cases well–the cases where police ought to be called, basically, the cases that make a harrowing story. (We’d like to think that. We’re often wrong, but let that pass.) This is not a harrowing story. It was mildly alarming, not terrifying. But I think that in some ways the edge cases are a different kind of difficult because they’re so easy to second guess. I really appreciate ConFusion’s willingness to sort this out as a case that wasn’t obvious and dramatic–as a case that could easily, if he had made different choices, have languished as a couple of incident reports from different perspectives and some eyerolling subtweets. They allowed room for everyone to make better choices from his initial bad ones, while still supporting me and making me feel safe and not making me feel like a constant burden on my friends. Having been at conventions where I had far less confidence about far worse incidents, I appreciate that more than I can say.

What we tell them and when

Friday night Mark and I took our ten-year-old goddaughter to her first jazz concert, a real grown-up concert in the atrium at Orchestra Hall, not a kids’ concert, tailored to her interest in drums. It was a smashing success and I have been telling people the joyful parts of being able to share this with her, how captivated she was, how the other concertgoers were delighted by her.

There’s another tiny piece I haven’t mentioned, but it’s the week it is, the year it is, the world it is.

When I went out to the bathroom at intermission, Orchestra Hall had the pre-ordered drinks sitting on a table completely unattended. No staff near the table, no staff even visible. People’s names were under the drinks, patrons were milling around. I was appalled. And when I went back in, I mentioned this as a terrible idea, and I said to Lillian, “Sweetie, don’t ever, ever, ever take a drink that’s been left unattended. You always, always, always watch who has had control of your drink.” And she nodded solemnly and said, “Yes.”

She is 10.

I did not say “rape” or “rohypnol” or “GHB.” At her age, she probably honestly filed it away as “someone could spit in that, gross.” But…she is 10. She will be in high school before we know it. And you have to grab the moments you can. You have to take the opportunities. If you sit a kid down for a lecture, here is all the stuff you need to know, some of it will fly past, some of it will not go in. And you will forget to say some of it. If they only hear stuff once, some important stuff will be lost.

I was not that much older than she is when my cousin told me the same thing, always know who has had your drink, do not drink an unknown punch at a party, even if they tell you it’s non-alcoholic, maybe especially if they tell you it’s non-alcoholic. Watch them make your drink, keep your drink with you, do not leave it on the table if you go to the bathroom, finish your soda, get a new one after.

She is 10.

She is 10, and I hope no one has said Harvey Weinstein’s name to her. She watches Big Bang Theory, and I wish she didn’t, because it’s full of toxic bullshit, and because Mayim Bialik is trying to tell her that if only she’s good enough, if only she dresses the right way and wants to be a good smart girl it will be enough. It will not be enough. This thing I am telling her, at 10, about control of her drink, about how to hold her hand when she punches, about kicking for joints and soft places on the body and running like hell, about how she is worth it and never think she is not worth hitting as hard as she can, as hard as she has to: it will not be enough. I cannot promise that it will be. It is what I have. I can give her that my friends think it’s amazing that she loves the drums, my friends want to introduce her to the lead percussionist and help her see all the cool percussion instruments. I can give her grown-ups who see a tiny pixie child intent on listening to jazz and want to give her more of the world, not less. Who say, when you go out in the world, this is what you do–not, don’t go out in the world.

She is 10, and I told her, never take a drink that’s been left unattended.

It will only get more like this, in the years ahead. As the adults, we always want to think it’s too early to have to say the words, and by the time we’re comfortable, it’s too late, they needed to hear them already. We want to protect them from the words, and we can’t protect them from the world. So the opportunities come in the strangest places. It’s fun when it’s “do you know what Cubism means?” This one was not a fun one. But you take the moments you get. She didn’t have to dwell on it, she nodded and went on with her evening, which she declared to be joyful hours. It’s still lodged in my heart, though. She’s 10, she’s 10, she’s 10. I want that to be a magic incantation, but it isn’t.

Attention tax

One of the things that has been making me furious about sexual harassment lately–secondary to all the other things that make me furious about it–is the attention tax it imposes on women. The time spent figuring out whether there’s enough evidence for us to be taken seriously this time, whether the people who were in the “surely you misinterpreted” and “that doesn’t mean what it blatantly means” camp last time will finally take us seriously, the time spent recovering from someone shouting in our faces and someone else grabbing our asses, the time sharing stories and pooling information and cleaning up messes and figuring out what to do, what we can do, what we have the power to do. That is time not spent on other things that are frankly a whole hell of a lot more interesting.

When it’s in convention terms, the time spent discussing who did what and what to do and letting the adrenaline settle and coping is time not spent on ideas for books and stories and where to go with them. It is very directly a tax on attention that could and should be going toward work. And it makes me exhausted and resentful, and then I try to corral my attention back to my work, because that is a far, far better place for it to be. I have directly observed that when I am at a con where people are dealing with an ongoing situation of this type, I come back with far, far less in the way of inspired notes for new projects–not just coming away drained instead of energized, but the specifics of what business are we doing here, where is our attention going.

I’m lucky. I know a lot of good men. I know a lot of good straight, white men. One of the benefits of this is that when a straight, white dude is an asshole, I am clear that it is artisanal assholery that he is hand-crafting by choice, not a trait he can’t avoid by his demographics. And a lot of good straight, white men have been stepping up to share the work of dealing with sexual harassment on a community level. I appreciate it. I do. But that is a choice they are making. Statistically, on average, the nonconsensual part, the part where you have to cope with the fallout of being harassed again, the part where it happens several times in a row and then it’s on your mind and you go into the next professional situation having to have a plan for how to cope–that’s a drain on your time and attention that you cannot have back, that other people can help with structurally but not in the moment. They can donate their time but not hand you back yours, not give you back those hours and days of working on the situation and processing and coping. It can happen to men. It does happen to men. And as one woman I know never loses an opportunity to point out, it does not happen to every woman. But statistically, on average, it is an attention tax that falls much, much more heavily on women, for things that we did not ask for and cannot change.

It’s not just sexual harassment. This is not the only attention tax, and I don’t mean to talk as though it is. Racist bullshit and the people who visit it upon people of color? That is, among other worse things, an attention tax on those people of color. Having to cope with accessibility issues and prejudice against the disabled? Attention tax. Homophobia and other forms of anti-queer assholery? Attention tax. Navigating the world while neurodiverse, even in ways that do not feel like a disability internally, among people who are going to be utter jerks to any hint of non-neurotypicality? Attention tax. And while I’ve talked about men and women above, the amount of attention tax that falls on gender-nonconforming and non-binary people gets mind-bogglingly larger the more gender-policing the subculture they’re interacting with gets. One of the fundamental questions is: how much jerkitude are people going to blithely shovel on you for being you and then skip along with their day, and how much will that pull away from the focus you need to do your stuff that you do.

Do I imagine I’m the first to observe this? Hardly. But “show don’t tell” is hardly new advice, either, and writers get blog posts out of that several times a year. What I’m saying to you is: this is affecting the work of people you know and care about. All the time. It doesn’t have to. It is literally all entirely voluntary. The thing I said above about artisanal bullshit: last month I got very tired of people saying “so that’s a thing that happened” when they were describing a choice someone made. So let’s not do that. Let’s not ascribe to fundamental forces things that are actual bad choices people are making.

And also: people who are doing work through all these attention taxes, who are managing to push it aside and fight their way through to focusing on making something awesome: I see you. I appreciate you. I’m sorry it’s like this. I keep hoping that some of the draining work will gain us some ground and it will be long-term less necessary. But in the meantime, thanks for clawing back some of your own in the face of it. It’s so hard, and it matters so much.

We never think it’s us

You volunteer for a thing. Good for you. Seriously, non-sarcastically: good. The world needs people to step up on so many fronts, and you do. And you do the thing, and then the thing gets done, and sometimes you have a natural gift for it, and sometimes you don’t, sometimes you just work hard at it and do some learning and figure out the thing. You get good at the thing, fast or slow you get good at it. There’s a little bit of applause but maybe not as much as there is work done. There never really is, that’s how volunteering works.

Great! Fantastic! Now stop.

I’m serious. I’m really, really not kidding. You need you to stop. Your organization needs you to stop.

Not stop volunteering completely. Nope. The world needs people to step up. But here’s the problem: if the same person steps up to the same job for too long, it becomes invisible. It becomes A’s job. And A still gets thanked, hey, good job, A, what would we ever do without A. But sometimes that last rhetorical question turns literal: A is probably not immune to breaking their leg, having a family member who needs care, a job crisis, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Tahiti. (Or Australia. Hi, Paul.) A, to get really morbid with you, is probably not the world’s first immortal. So if you can’t do the thing without A…you can’t do the thing. And the more important the thing is, the more that’s a problem.

Also of concern, and very hard to bring up: sometimes A’s skills slip for one reason or another. Yes, you. Even if you’re A.

Say you’re arranging the little kids’ Christmas program. And the first two years, you are filled with joy and energy and you have so many ideas and it is amazing! And people tell you how amazing it is! The best ever! My golly! What a Christmas program! And the next few years, you have not quite so much joy but so much experience, so the combination is still pretty great, probably better than anyone else could do! Wow! You are the Christmas program monarch! And when a 4-year-old vomits off the back of the risers, you have someone ready to clean it up quietly, and you have enough adults to make sure that the 6-year-olds do not rampage when they get offstage afterwards, and this is just a super, super job!

And ten years down the line, not one single person has approached the beloved mainstay of the community to say, “Your Christmas programs stink on ice and you need to stop.” Which of course they would feel totally comfortable doing, so you can definitely tell that you’re still at the top of your game and feedback will always get to you before people are frustrated enough for it to be non-constructive.

Say it’s not the Christmas program. And it’s not just burnout. Say it’s finances, and say your memory has started to go. This is not a random example; I know someone who was in charge of part of the finances of a volunteer organization and started to slip into the early stages of Alzheimer’s. And for the first few years, experience carried them through, and I bet that they told themselves that it was still fine and they were still doing a better job than anyone else would have done. And for the first few years they were probably even right. And by the time they moved into the memory unit, there was literally over a decade of mishandled finances for that volunteer organization. No one is the villain here. That person is not a bad person. But we never think it’s us. We never think, I bet I’m the problem here.

Nor is Alzheimer’s the only way this can happen. There are habits of thought one falls into, things that seem obvious, that are just The Way We’ve Always Done It, and some of them are because We have had Bitter Experience, and some of them are…just habit. Sometimes the Bitter Experience no longer applies. Sometimes this is all very true, and passing the job along to someone else will mean that it is done worse. We have to do that anyway. We have to be willing to let someone else make mistakes and do it worse sometimes. And sometimes we can pass along notes and advice and all sorts of information to make this smoother, but it can never be perfect.

But seriously. Rotating jobs. Changing what you’re volunteering for. I very, very occasionally see this discussed as a favor to yourself to avoid burnout, and it is. It’s also a favor to your organization. And you can come back after a few years, when someone else has taken a turn and learned to do the thing…although if it’s always you and the same person alternating, that also tells you a thing about the organization.

The last question is, what if no one else steps up? And the answer is: that tells you something about the health of the organization, right there. If no one else steps up and you are literally the only one, then maybe it’s time to say that your volunteer energies should be used on something else anyway. Which is a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve put a lot of time, energy, and love into something. But. Sometimes.

I have no exact perfect answer for a timeline on this. There is no five-year rule or ten-year rule or one-year rule. It depends on what you’re doing, how often it happens, what kind of energy it requires, what size of group, all sorts of things. But I’ve seen this in more than one kind of organization–churches, art groups, science fiction conventions–all in the last year, so I thought I’d say: we never think it’s us. Sometimes it’s us when we least want it to be, and those times are the times when we get the least signaling about it.

Lando and Cap and me

Look, I am only a casual superhero comics fan, but here’s my sideline/peripheral take:

When I was two years old, Lando Calrissian betrayed his friends to the Empire. And then he thought better of it and became a good guy again. Two years old. I don’t actually remember experiencing this story for the first time, it’s a thing that entered my brain through cultural osmosis and repetition. I am now almost thirty-nine.

Why do I bring this up?

Because “maybe someone you thought was good is actually bad! but wait, no, they’re actually good again!” is not a new story for anyone who is an adult now. We have all done this one. It is not daring and new, it is not a shocking twist, it is–in fact–kind of the default. Yes, yes, who can you trust, anyone might turn out to be blah blah whatev.

We have never experienced a Superman without a kind of kryptonite that can turn him evil. We have never had a hero without shades of gray. And I’m not suggesting that we should do a ton of that. I’m not suggesting that abandoning nuance is the way to go. I’m just suggesting that “the ground beneath your feet is shifting! who should you trust!” is yeah, yeah, yeah, pretty old hat to more than one generation in a row by now. So you really need something better than that if you’re going to try to convince readers that you have something great up your sleeve. As far as twists go, this is as twisty as “maybe they’re all dead we promise they’re not oh wait they are.” Other people have made the moral arguments already, the arguments based on character background/origins. I find them pretty compelling. I just wanted to say, also? it’s really sad when you go to shock people with things that have been standard templates for longer than they’ve been alive. It relies on one of us not paying attention, and buddy, it’s not me this time.

The first question

I have a favor to ask. There are a lot of difficult conversations in this world right now, and I would like to ask you to pay attention to the first question you ask in those difficult conversations. Because it often gives a sense of your priorities–and sometimes it gives a sense of your priorities that is not the one you want.

Let me give you a couple of examples. When we’re talking about sexual harassment at conventions, if your first question is, “What do we do about the false reports?”, that tells me something very different than if your first question is, “How do we make sure that people trust us enough to report?” or “How do we keep clear records so that all the information we need is preserved?” And do I think, “I bet it’s because the people who are asking about false reports already have thorough answers to those other questions”? HAHAHA YEAH SURE I DO.

Similarly, disability and accessibility. If your first question is, “What about the times when accessibility needs conflict?”–and oh Lordy, that is so often the first question–that tells me so very very much about your priorities. And what it tells me is not great, frankly. Because again, I promise: the people and organizations who have this as their first question about disability and accessibility are not people and organizations who have smoothly and effortlessly handled all the first-tier, obvious accessibility needs and are now moving on to the hard ones.

Yeah, I know, sometimes the first thing that pops out of your head is something trivial, something random. I don’t think these examples are that. They’re too consistent to be random, and if you think they represent something trivial, you’ve probably never been on the wrong end of them.

Try to make sure your first question is not, “How do I put this problem back on the people who have been bearing the brunt of it all along?”, actually. That’s pretty important.

Oh, and if your stunningly insightful political question that “no one” is asking boils down to, “What if this group of people is actually just inferior? what if they just suck?”–guess what? It turns out people have asked that before. It turns out people ask that a lot. You are not new, you are not insightful, you are not hard-hitting. You’re just being an asshole. Social scientists have done a lot of research into whether one gender, one race, one ethnicity, etc. etc. etc. is inherently inferior to others, and it turns out that the scientific answer is, NO, AND ALSO STOP BEING SUCH AN ASSHOLE.

Worldbuilding: continuing thoughts after panels

I was on a worldbuilding panel at ConFusion that was labeled Worldbuilding 495, intended to be graduate level in contrast with another panel that was labeled 101. I’m not sure we got it that far, but we certainly took it beyond default questions. And then I went to another panel where an audience member’s commentary made me shoot steam out my ears (seriously, ask 4/6 of the panelists–maybe the other two too, but four of them commented on my face after), and so here we are with a handful of post-panel thoughts.

I think the thing I didn’t get to after my own panel was about sidelong politics and parallel social structures. We have those! We have them everywhere. If you ask who is president of the US, who is prime minister of Canada, etc.–even who is in Congress, who is on the Supreme Court–that doesn’t give you influential members of the communities that might interest you. Who’s the president of a charity, who are the major donors. Who are the people who make sure there are chairs set up for that charity’s talk. Who’s the lecturer at the university people want to hear; who’s the journalist who calls them. All of these groups have their own internal and overlapping politics. If you read about monarchs and heads of state, you’ll get one picture–and maybe that’s the picture you want to draw. But if you read about things that are less centrally about governance, a different picture emerges–sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.

Sometimes even basic social structures don’t overlap much with the official government. The work of James C. Scott has been really influential in my thinking about this. He writes about hill people as a particular category of peripheral social groups to empire, and how and when they succeed at keeping themselves out of the imperial eye. And we have a bit of that in our legends with Robin Hood, but I think there’s a lot more potential here.

I left the other panel with a strong sense of classism in worldbuilding, and I’ve just run into it in the book I’m reading too. I think it’s worth asking ourselves, especially in urban fantasy and near-future SF, how much the shorthand we’re using for “these are bad people” overlaps with “these are poor people, these are the lower classes.” I think it’s worth making some effort not to do that. And if it’s farther-future SF, it’s worth considering whether what you’re saying is “some groups of people are just squalid and awful no matter what you try to do for them because they inherently aren’t like us.” And don’t do that either.

The commenter at the panel used “eating potato chips and watching TV” as his flag for the mentally inferior lower classes. There were potato chips in the consuite and lots of panels on TV shows…but we all know he didn’t mean our snack foods and filmed entertainment, he meant their snack foods and filmed entertainment. You know. Them. And if we lived in a post-scarcity society, he went on, they would likely outbreed us, and what would happen to our utopia then?

Because, y’know, education is not a scarce resource now, nor are time and energy, so any way that they are is because of how they are. Previous situations where people’s standard of living was improved and their family patterns changed are not relevant for reasons. But it’s not racial! It’s just…about groups of people…who have inherent group traits that make it just and right that they’re poor and we aren’t. And all the nerds who have families who don’t understand them don’t count as counterarguments to the idea of being swallowed up by a growing inherent inferior class, apparently, because reasons. Because it’s so much more satisfying to create an us vs. them. Because you can say beer and cable TV, as the book I’m reading now does, safe in the knowledge that it’s not our beer (which is the good beer) and our cable TV (which is the quality shows). And if one of our people happens to like entertainment with a broad base of appeal, clearly we’re liking it differently and it doesn’t count like when one of them likes it.

“The Marching Morons” needs to go. March on. March away. Just stop doing your worldbuilding in ways that postulate that people are entirely awful by demographic group. We can all do better. And we should.

Preexisting

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir with this, but the thing about preaching to the choir is that sometimes you get at an angle of analysis the choir hasn’t been using. I have heard a lot of “depriving people of health care is bad” arguments that are absolutely true, but not a lot of the following.

So let’s talk about preexisting conditions.

You know those commercials that tell you to tell your doctor if you’re suffering from dropsy, the vapors, or a dozen other conditions that make you think, “Shouldn’t my doctor know that already”? Under the current system, where people can’t be dropped from all insurance possibilities based on a preexisting condition, those notifications are necessary because record-keeping and institutional memory are imperfect. Your doctor should know that already, but they may now, so: probably mention it, huh.

But if you can be dropped based on a preexisting condition, it takes on a whole new meaning. “Tell your doctor if you have a history of respiratory infections”: right, so your doctor can write down “history of respiratory infections” in the course of figuring out what drug to give you for something different, and boom, there you are with that tag on you, and who knows what the consequences will be. Your doctor needs to know this stuff to figure out how to treat you–sometimes to figure out a subtle cause or contributing factor to what you have right now–but you suddenly have incentive not to tell them. Healthy as an ox, me, just this sprained ankle to deal with! Something very temporary! Oh please don’t tell them I have anything non-temporary. Please ignore the anemia. Do not test my thyroid. Forget the anxiety. I just won’t get treated for the life-altering allergies. Only deal with the condition I tell you I’m in here for. For heaven’s sake don’t run any tests because you caught a murmur listening to my heart or my blood pressure is behaving funny. That’s all the sprained ankle. Has to be. And let’s wait until whatever else there is has caused permanent damage, because that’s the point at which it’s too bad to ignore.

I’m not saying this hasn’t happened under the current system. It does. Of course it does. We should be moving away from it, not towards more.

And this is all bad enough when we’re talking about a heart condition, or depression, or, well, any of a number of things. But when we’re talking about something contagious, all of a sudden it’s more than a dangerous calculation for one person–it’s a dangerous calculation for the people around them, too. Is what you have bad enough to disclose and get treatment, or should you just cope with it and keep passing it along to others? I should not have to say that this is not a good system. This attitude often gets billed as “be a smart consumer of health care,” but in this case a stingy consumer of health care is the opposite of a smart one.

But that’s not the only thing pushing people toward dangerous medical dishonesty in the current political climate. There are lawsuits wending their way through the courts claiming that doctors should not have to treat people who have certain sexual orientations. So not only the questions that pertain to your sexual health but also the ones about the rest of your life health–“Do you feel safe in your relationships?” is one of my favorites–are now extremely dangerous. Not just for getting dumped from insurance, although let’s not underestimate the impact of that. But for being rejected for emergency treatment even if you pay the entire gigantic bill out of pocket.

Last week a family member made a Facebook post of a meme saying that while other people freaked out in favor of or against Donald Trump, he was just going to keep doing what he always did. The people who connect me to that family member each have quite large preexisting conditions that can no longer be hidden–one of them was treated on an emergent basis, both of them are in the records. And of course there’s me and my giant flashing neon sign that reads “preexisting condition.” So…”keep doing what I always do” is not actually a functional mode here for his own family. It’s certainly not a functional mode for the country.