alexandraerin: (Default)
So, somebody on Twitter asked me to "explain the WisCon thing". I've received a few similar messages on Tumblr. This post is intended for people who have zero familiarity. It is an overview and does not cover every detail. It's just an attempt to explain what WisCon is and what's going on with it.

WisCon is a 38 year old science fiction and fantasy convention held in Madison, Wisconsin. It differs from what a lot of people think of when they hear "sci-fi convention" in three major ways.

One is that it is more of a literary and academic convention than a comic book convention. Although the focus is no longer solely on books (if it ever was solely) and there has been more discussion of things like comic books, the internet, and geek culture in general in recent years, it's still more academic in approach. There's not the same culture of cosplay at WisCon, for instance, and the crowd maybe skews a bit older... which is not to say that there aren't young people in attendance, which is important for when we get to "what's going on with WisCon".

Two is that WisCon has an explicitly feminist and implicitly progressive stance as an oganization. It calls itself the world's first feminist sf/f con, and actively tries to promote inclusivity and sensitivity along a number of axes.

Three is that the con is entirely member-run. People on the outside commenting about WisCon-related situations often get the wrong idea about things because of this. For instance, assuming that people who are appearing at WisCon are invited guests. With the exception of guests of honor (of which there are usually two), WisCon does not invite people to come and speak; members of the con (people who buy their admission to the con) volunteer their expertise and experience to participate in panels and speak on subjects.

Although there is a parent entity that is the corporate body of the convention, the immediate governing body of the convention is the convention committee, or "ConCom", which is what you might call a super committee consisting of every single person who volunteers to keep the con running. The current ConCom is in excess of 80 people. The ConCom uses two major tools to come to decisions: the group as a whole uses consensus-building discussions, and sometimes out of that discussion a new sub-committee will arise to deal with a specific aspect or issue.

So that's what WisCon is. A sci-fi/fantasy con strongly rooted in literary endeavors (writing, publishing), with a stated feminist bent, operated by consensus of the members who do the work.

What's going on is that in 2013, there were two formal complaints of harassment filed against long-time member and one-time guest of honor James "Jim" Frenkel, then an editor at Tor. Mr. Frenkel has a long-standing history of harassing behavior towards women, including sexual harassment and violent or frightening outbursts. The 2013 complaints included one of each.

There was a lot of ball-dropping and buck-passing--despite the complainants themselves taking pains to be heard and following up more than they should have needed to--and Mr. Frenkel attended WisCon 38 in 2014 with nothing having officially been done.

It's hard to sum up what happened leading up to the con or after, but the short version is: WisCon failed to address the complaints at all until after the con was over, and has failed to address them in a meaningful way so far afterwards.

If you would like to read more on this topic, I recommend reading this post by Natalie Luhrs, which has evolved to be a round-up of other people's reactions and bits of news.

There are signs that things are moving slowly in the right direction. The "slowly" is substantially because of things relating to point three above. At this point the bigger problems in the present have to do with failures of transparency and over-correction to the wrong lessons in past failings. I'm not going to expand on that right now, though, because I am optimistic and I don't wish to write a post-mortem when the patient may be on the verge of recovery.

I will say that a lot of people who are closer to the inside than I am have said that a lot of the problems stem from people who put loyalty--to the con, if not specifically to its one-time luminaries like Mr. Frenkel--over safety.

Me personally?

I am fiercely loyal to WisCon.

And it is out of this loyalty that I speak out the way that I do.

Because the con is not James Frenkel. The con is not the ConCom, or its co-chairs, or its ruling cliques. The con is not even the institution or phenomenon of WisCon. The con is its membership. The members are the con. That's where our loyalties have to lie: not with anyone because they were there at the beginning, but with everyone who will be there at WisCon 39. And WisCon 40. And WisCon 41. We have an obligation to everyone who shows up. The things we get out of the con--and I have gotten so much from WisCon--are what we owe to the people who will attend it in the future.

And where we have been failed... or where we have ourselves failed... we owe them better.

That's why I'm not giving up.
alexandraerin: (Default) tag them with both "WisCon" and "Jim Frenkel", for easier reference.
alexandraerin: (Default)
So, one of the things that affected the committee's "sentence" for Jim Frenkel was his claim that his settlement with his former employer Tor (an imprint of Macmillan Publishing) would prevent him from speaking publicly about his conduct for five years, which would be four years now. The existence of this injunction became the basis for the time period before Frenkel could petition for readmission, since they couldn't expect him to apologize and acknowledge what he did publicly before that.

I've said before that it was completely unnecessary for WisCon to incorporate this supposed settlement into their decision. Even if one accepts the idea that he could acknowledge his wrongdoing and petition for re-entry, any legal trouble that would prevent him from doing so until a certain date would be his problem. Setting the timetable based on neither helps nor harms him from a strictly objective standpoint.

Yesterday, it came out--confirmed by the legal department of Macmillan--that he was bound to no such agreement. He straight up lied about its existence.

Some people have positioned this as him lying to avoid apologizing, or lying to avoid punishment. I'm not sure that the second is exactly accurate--by which I mean, I don't know that he actually avoided punishment by it--but the fact is, they're both far too innocent a description for what happened here.

What he did was lie to avoid acknowledging his conduct, publicly and on the record.

Jim Frenkel is a serial harasser and abuser of women. I saw a disagreement on Twitter earlier today about whether he had really "flown under the radar" or whether he was a "known quantity", and the fact is, he was both. Some people knew, some people didn't, and the things that some people knew differed in apparent context and magnitude.

A man like this depends on the fact that information is compartmentalized, even within a community. A man like this needs to be able to shake his sadly and say, "Well, that's their story." or chuckle wryly and say, "The things they say about me." or "You know these things have a way of getting blown out of proportion." or (if he has the right audience) "Women, right?", whenever there's even a glancing mention of his past conduct.

He has to be able to spin off the things that "everyone knows" about him as so much rumor and innuendo and exaggeration to the people who aren't part of the everyone who knows them.

The question of why it took so long for him to suffer any real consequences is a complicated and sad one involving many failings, societal and personal. I have to imagine that the matter of why now, though... the question of why critical mass started to build up around 2010 and a tipping point was reached between 2013 and 2014 has a lot to do with the internet, with the way that it has de-compartmentalized information and brought people together, and even changed the way that many people think about and deal with these things in offline spaces.

Frenkel has not acknowledged his conduct in any public space or forum. He showed up this year at WisCon 38 to assert his innocence. A man like this will privately express "regret" show "contrition" when necessary, but to have a public statement from his own lips or fingers where he owns up to what he did would be devastating. That's the Game Over.

Or at least, a major setback. He might be arrogant enough to believe he could still spin that as an unfair condition that he was forced to accept, and might be charming enough to sell that to some people.

The bottom line is, the fact that Jim Frenkel lied about this and the circumstances of the lie are collectively one of the most dangerous indicators of his true character yet revealed. They reveal that his contrition is a sham, they reveal that his manipulations are deliberate and calculated, and they reveal that his intentions are not to change his ways, not any more and for any longer than he has to, in order to continue to get away with this.

I know a lot of people have been hoping that the sub-committee's decision would be revoked and substituted with another one. I know virtually everyone has been hoping that they will at least release an official clarification to firm up the timeline. I don't know what the conversation around this in the ConCom looks like right now, or even if it's still continuing.

I would certainly hope that the knowledge that he lied to the sub-committee would on its face be enough to end the debate and merit a permanent ban. I can sadly imagine people who still value loyalty over member safety, con ideals, or even the reputation of the con making the argument that there's no rule that says that and it's not like he was testifying under oath, which ignores the implication of the lie.

On the chance that the debate is still for whatever reason raging, I'd like to offer a way forward that doesn't require another sub-committee and doesn't require another decision of the same complexity.

The original decision mentioned that his provisional right to return would be subject to evidence of either substantial change in behavior, or continued problematic behavior. We now have evidence of continued problematic behavior, intent to continue problematic behavior, and fabricated evidence of changed behavior that calls into question .

My understanding is that the original decision was meant to say that there would be a hearing for this evidence in four years' time. Well, for whatever reason, it doesn't actually say that. Anywhere. All it says is that WisCon will entertain "grounded, substantive evidence" that he's changed, and also any evidence against him. Well, we have the evidence against him, and this evidence makes it hard to believe any evidence he provides would be substantive or grounded.

So my suggestion to the ConCom is this: in keeping with the wording of the original decision and in light of the evidence, kick him out the door and lock it behind him. No hearing. He blew it. He's gone.

Here's hoping that you're way ahead of me and these words are completely superfluous.
alexandraerin: (Default)
There's one theme I keep seeing in comments about the Jim Frenkel case, and while this particular thought mostly seems to be coming from erstwhile defenders from outside the immediate community (and people who probably be Frenkel's peers in age and other demographic markers, I imagine), I do have to wonder if it's related to why one piece of evidence in particular apparently didn't seem compelling to the sub-committee's chair.

Author/journalist Mikki Kendall reported that on her first meeting with Frenkel, he spent the entire conversation openly leering at her cleavage. She has written and spoken about this incident and about WisCon's handling of Frenkel here, with an addendum taking specific note of how the recently-released apology reflects (or rather, fails to reflect) the treatment she's still receiving.

The reason I'm speaking about this has to do with the picture that one of her friends snapped of the incident. This picture has been dismissed by the commenters I described above as being just a single moment of time and not proof of anything... you know, because a picture flattens perspective, he could have been in the process of moving his gaze down to something on the floor when the camera went off, he could have been suppressing a sneeze, et cetera.

I could point out that it's really unlikely someone would have managed to snap a picture just in time to catch an accidental juxtaposition like that, as compared to noticing something both obvious and ongoing and getting a picture of it while it's still ongoing. And I guess I just did. But let's forget that.

But the thing is, this line of argument requires us to throw out Mikki's own testimony as to what happened. She was there. Don't you think she knows the difference between someone who is supposedly engaging with her instead staring directly at her chest, and the same person glancing down at the floor next to her? Is there any reason to be interrogating her claim, especially when it's perfectly in line with other reports of Frenkel's typical behavior?

The photograph as a single piece of evidence, a single snapshot in time, might not be damning. But it doesn't have to be. It's supporting evidence; it backs up what Mikki has to say. Other people's experiences were believed without such support.

That the one supported by a picture is also the one that was apparently thrown out is interesting to say the least.
alexandraerin: (Default)
Is "Member Advocate" merely a title for someone who runs committees at the behest of committees in order to deal with the disposition of reports and generate new reports... or is it, as the title suggests, a person whose number one job is to be an advocate for WisCon members, the representative and voice and liaison between members who have a safety issue and the powers that be?

Because while I have heard many positive things about the person holding the title, I have not gotten the impression that she has embodied the role of Member Advocate in a way that lives up to the ideal conjured by the words.

She saw no need to keep in touch with the people who produced the complaints during the process of handling them, which feels really jarring given that the position was created in part to end the troubling silence that resulted from lost/mishandled/ignored reports.

She apparently picked and chose which members' concerns would be represented in the write-up that the sub-committee worked with, leading to conspicuous absences and the appearance at least of weighing some members' comfort and safety over others.

And when the uproar and confusion greeted the poorly-worded initial statement, she did nothing to address that.

Now, I'm not writing this because I think the Member Advocate is a terrible person and I'm not even calling this her failure, because I don't know who defined the role exactly, or how it was defined to her. It might be that she did exactly what she was asked to. It almost certainly is the case that she did the job she thought was before her, to the best of her ability.

That's why this is phrased as "a question WisCon needs to be asking itself".

What is the Member Advocate actually there for? Are they really just another committee head? Should it be their job to simply reduce conflicting opinions to a consensus and then write a statement?

Or is their job to be an advocate for the members involved?

I think it should be the latter. There has been some criticism of the sub-committee's attempt to mimic a judiciary approach. This is especially troubling if--as I understand--the Member Advocate serves as the chair of the harassment sub-committees that she convenes. Because that's her in the position of the one moderating the discussion, the one acting as "judge" (to the extend that anyone on a committee of equals is)... as a chair, it might seem natural to serve the interest of perceived impartiality.

And there is nothing wrong with impartiality. There should be impartiality.

But if your title is Advocate, you are not and should not be impartial, because it is your job to represent a party.

An advocate is not neutral.

An advocate is one who has taken someone's side.

One of the most trenchant criticisms of not just the product of the committee but the process that created it was that it did not center the victims of Mr. Frenkel's behavior. This should be astonishing, given that the proceedings were called and ran by the advocate of these people.

I realize that the proceedings are confidential, but as the members of the sub-committee are no doubt also participating in the conversation about how to change or save or revamp the process they participated in, I would ask them to ask themselves:

Was the Member's Advocate conspicuously on the side of Elise, Lauren, and the other people affected by James Frenkel?

Assuming the harassment sub-committee system is not scrapped entirely and a completely different model put in place instead, making sure that this happens--that there is an advocate in the room who is completely centered on the concern of the complainant--would go a long way towards addressing the shortfalls of the current system.
alexandraerin: (Default)
I keep wrestling with whether or not to say this, but my brain keeps coming back to it.

We have a culture that will excuse, ignore, or sweep sexual misconduct under the carpet, especially when it's done by a "respectable" white man. This is something that is going to affect even an institution that positions itself as WisCon does. I don't bring up the fact that it happens to say we should accept it; I bring it up to say that we should expect it, and expect to have to deal with it.

But one of the two specific complaints on the table involved a book being thrown by Mr. Frenkel at a young female writer's head. This was an act of violence. Suggesting that he did it in anger or frustration (I don't know which description would fit better) would be a mere descriptive gloss, not an excuse or even an explanation, really.

It's harder to imagine that being swept under the rug, especially given the lack of other dynamics like race.

Now, this might sound insensitive, but it seems to me like the presence of an attempted physical assault, a violent, angry outburst, should have simplified matters. Does it really matter what the other complaint consists of, when one of them involves this kind of outburst? Does it really matter whether the twenty year history of similar behavior can be brought before the sub-committee or not, when you have this on the table?

I don't say this to minimize the other complaint or the history.

But this is the question I keep coming back to.

If the only complaint on the table had been that someone had thrown a book at someone's head during a WisCon programming item, would there have been so much hand-wringing and dithering? Would it have been as something that requires a table so much as a swift and obvious action?

I have a hard time believing this to be the case.

I feel like... and I try to think of other ways to interpret the chain of events, but I can't... but I feel like not only does the handling of the incidents and Mr. Frenkel's history fail to account for the seriousness of what he has done, but I feel like the consequences are less severe then if he had "only" tossed a book at the head of a writer he was dismissing, if that had been the only formal report.

I don't want the other complainant or the other people who have come forward to tell their experiences to think I'm blaming them for having muddied the waters. Obviously, more offenses should equal more consequences, and a more obvious course of action.

But I try to think of circumstances under which someone could behave in that manner and not be shown the door, and I can only think that the hand-wringing and half-measures that too often greet reports of sexual harassment must have had something to do with it.

The problem is that we view certain transgressions, no matter how gross or obvious, as "a kind of gray area". The evidence that suggests--if not proves--that this happened here is that even with the presence of an offense that doesn't fall into that area, the result was still hamstrung by such hand-wringing and half-measures.
alexandraerin: (Default)
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.


alexandraerin: (Default)

August 2017



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