While studying English Literature I was exposed to the Icelandic Sagas; these historical recountings were presented to me as antecedents of the modern English novel (they’re fascinating in and of themselves and you haven’t lived until you’ve struggled through reading them in Old English), but the main thing I took away from that particular educational episode was learning about the Icelandic Althing.
The Althing is touted as the world’s oldest parlimentary body, having been run in almost uninterrupted fashion since sometime in the 900s. My understanding is that it is believed to have evolved from spring time gatherings when far flung communities would gather to trade, gossip and settle their differences.
What struck me about it was the egalitarian nature of the enterprise. I vaguely recall one story about two families that were engaged in blood feud. A member of one family had murdered a member of the other and both arrived at an Althing to settle up. The aggrieved party was asked what they would consider just recompense and their initial response was “death”. The defendants responded that they found this unacceptable and offered payment instead. The over-riding concern for everyone was avoiding a tit-for-tat continuation of the blood feud. Ultimately, the plaintiffs accepted monetary damages and exile for the killer for a not inconsiderable time.
Several things stand out for me. The fact that everything took place in front of the entire community. The fact that money could be offered for a life. The fact that after dickering, the two sides were able to come to an agreement (that apparently held) that everyone considered just.
When I went to law school I learned about Torts and the concept that an aggrieved party could bring suit, the object of which was to “make the victim whole”. Or nearly as whole as reality and the law allows. The basic idea is that after the fact, a transgressor can do something that returns the victim to a state similar to what would have been if the transgression had never occurred. Someone damages your fence, they pay to replace it. Someone causes you injury, they pay for medical care and loss of income during recovery.
When I started competing in paintball tournaments, I learned that the penalty portion of the rules of the game were there to correct an imbalance caused by an infraction. In other words, a penalty imposed on a team is designed to return the game to the state that had existed prior to the infraction. This was particularly difficult in a sport that does not have time outs or natural pauses in the action, but we managed to devise a system of rules and associated penalties that removed any advantages a team might have gained by breaking the rules.
The common thread among all of these things is the concept that when someone commits a wrong, those affected are entitled to recompense and the nature of that recompense is to return things to the status quo, or as near an approximation of the status quo as is possible.
Note that we’re not talking punitive measures here. That’s a separate consideration (was the infraction so heinous as to warrant extra special attention?). In point of fact, our civil courts recognize this distinction and treat it separately during trials.
So now we come to fandom, puppies, Worldcon and apologies.
Most recently, author Lou Antonelli was taken to task for having contacted the Spokane Police Department to inform them that Sasquan’s Guest of Honor, David Gerrold, was a dangerous individual and implied that he might start trouble at Sasquan, a situation that the police ought to be on guard against.
Antonelli has since apologized (though not in a manner everyone has found acceptable). Since then, the Sasquan committee has met to determine if Antonelli’s actions were a violation of the con’s policies, determined that they were, further determined that Antonelli ought to be dis-invited from the convention but relented upon David Gerrold’s request that Antonelli be allowed to attend.
The committee’s actions have left a lot of other attendees unhappy, for a variety of reasons (Antonelli’s presence affects people other than Gerrold; a GoH ought not be granted the privilege of over-riding a convention’s rules, etc).
This particular incident follows a number of high-profile social issues within fandom – Benjanun/Winter Fox, Jim Frenkel, Wiscon, (a non-exhaustive list), many of which have similar narrative arcs:
someone within the community engages in unacceptable behavior by community standards
eventually (far too long in most cases) the bad behavior rises to the level that “something needs to be done”
fans from across the fannish spectrum throw in their two cents (often without knowing the full story, often with agendas, often expanding the issue beyond it’s initial conditions, sometimes causing collateral damage)
action is taken by whatever organization or individuals are in position to do so
the perpetrator apologizes (not always, not always acceptably)
we move on (followed by a tail of disgruntled, unsatisfied individuals: the consequences were too much or not enough; the individual engaged in other bad behavior that hasn’t been accounted for; the policies used were over-reaching or not stringent enough; the person caught was a victim of extreme politics; other individuals were not subject to the same treatment because of extreme politics; we’re too sensitive, we’re not sensitive enough)
What’s missing in every single one of these cases (and many others not recounted) is the concept of redressing the balance.
How exactly does banning an individual from a particular convention make their victims whole? In fact it doesn’t appear to. It’s as if we’ve abandoned this concept in favor of an entirely punitive one.
Further – is there such a thing as an acceptable apology within our community and, if so, what does it consist of?
That last also begs the question: are we a community that can accept apologies? This is important, because if there is no path to redemption within fandom, there is little to no incentive for those who have transgressed to change their ways.
Certainly there are some actions that can not be redeemed; Walter Breen comes to mind. Had he offered an apology, no matter how sincere and believable it might have been, there is simply no way that fandom could continue to accept his presence.
However, most of the cases we deal with do not go so far beyond the pale. Most are cases that split, or at least step on, the divide between individual and community. A personally aggrieved party has a different stake (and different requirements) than does the community. The individual wants justice for themselves; the community must take into consideration all of its members.
I also find it instructive in situations like this to try and put the shoe on the other foot. If I transgressed in manners similar to the cases we’re discussing, I know I value being a part of our community enough to want to remain within it; I’d be motivated to try and find out what I needed to do to “make things right” and find my way back. I’d want to know that there was a way to do so. (Belabor: those transgressors for whom the community means nothing do not need to be taken into consideration. They don’t want us, we don’t want them.)
It may very well be that some of the current issues are too immediate for aggrieved parties to want to consider these questions, and that is perfectly understandable, especially given that many of them are not resolved (or have not been resolved to their satisfaction). But I think we need to try.
I think we need to figure out if redemption is something fandom offers. I think we need to figure out what an acceptable apology is – and I think it ought to include elements that address both the individual and the community. If we ban someone from conventions – for how long? When bans have ended, should victims be informed ahead of time? Should they have a veto? What can override that veto? How do we disseminate the information? Should a convention or other entity assist victims if they seek redress in the courts? How do we shore up potential vulnerabilities (the author who sues a con over loss of business/damage to reputation)?
We have clearly entered into era in which the insider whisper campaign (“so and so is at the con, don’t go anywhere alone”) no longer works effectively – if it ever did – an era in which technology widens the scope of every single incident, frequently confusing and/or diluting the issue and even bringing them to the attention of the mainstream press.
We need to examine this more deeply than we have to date, because the consequences are, that however justified our actions may be in handling our problem children, if we don’t handle them properly, we’re actually in the business of creating a community of outcasts that are only motivated to do us further harm. Maybe that’s all we can do, but I hope not.