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Sometimes I think fandom has a self-destruct switch.
The World Science Fiction Convention takes place in London this August. The committee have, seemingly, got their act together, and have been coping well, despite having their British SF guest of honour (Iain M Banks) die on them last year and the usual hotel registration difficulties. This weekend, many of the staffers have gathered at the site to be briefed and try and foresee any problems. (We have only recently been recruited to help with the newsletter, and could not have made this weekend in any case.)

Science Fiction's most well known awards, the Hugos, are presented at the Worldcon. The co-chairs chose this weekend to announce their choice as toastmaster for the ceremony -

Jonathan Ross.

Now, Ross volunteered and also volunteered to waive his fee. He has experience. He has written comic books. He is an expert of cult film. He is a fan.

It might have looked like a no-brainer to the co-chairs.

But it did not ought to have done. Apart from the fact that Ross is completely unknown outside the UK and certainly not known to American fans, science fiction, comic book and fantasy conventions have, for the past couple of years, become sensitive to the harassment (both verbal and physical) that takes place, and the lack of balance, both in gender and race, on the programmes. Conventions now have policies in place to deal with racism and sexism and bullying and harassment. And Ross has a specific reputation from his TV chat show days.

As you can imagine, the announcement of the toastmaster choice was not particularly well received. One committee member had already resigned over the issue (and her reasons are good and extremely well articulated, but not relevant to my point here.) The 'movers and shakers' of fandom are now at odds. People are demanding their money back. Others are defending Ross on the principle that 'he's a fan' but so are a lot of other people.

The co-chairs (who are great people) should have foreseen this. We are now going to have Loncon 3 dissected and condemned and supported right across the net. Pharyngula had a critical piece on it this morning, for pity's sake (which seeing as PZ is in Minnesota...) This is the very last thing the convention needs -- and it ought to have been both foreseen and avoided. I find it difficult to believe that experienced conrunners (and, believe me, the co-chairs have many years of experience between them) did not realise the storm that would engulf British fandom, in particular, over this.

It is all so damn unnecessary.

Oh, and I won't be attending the Hugo ceremony.

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It was definitely unnecessary. It also can't be undone. Even if they get someone new, it will always be out there that they thought Ross was an appropriate guest and all that implies.

Indeed. Ross has actually offered to withdraw (if that twit was actually from him) but the damage is done now.

I can certainly understand people being a bit put off. I wouldn't be suprised if the Hugos were an especially sensitive point, given past incidents.

I'm sorry that it is complictating your life, though.

Not my life, but that of many of my friends. I think I know everyone on the con committee at least to nod to - but as oreouk put it, if this weekend's gathering can keep their minds on the task, we'll both be astonished.

I've never liked Jonathan Ross. I wouldn't have chosen him on these grounds alone. But yeah - not a good start.

I'm not sure about the Hugo ceremony. I'll have two teens with me who've barely brushed the surface of SF so far, and I'm not widely read. One of the reasons I'm going to Worldcon is to find out more about a genre I like.

Well, Ross has voluntarily withdrawn. We will see who actually gets the gig! Personally, I find award ceremonies boring and will probably be having dinner or actually, you know, doing something. However, I would not put anyone off. (The first worldcon I attended was in 1979. I had booked tickets to the banquet -- no longer a feature -- and the Hugo ceremony, but saw none of it. I spent the whole time watching videos of Blake's Seven. The VHS was a brand new thing... I also made some of the best friends you could possibly ask for, including inamac at that convention.)

Worldcons, like Eastercons, are pretty wide ranging. You could, for instance, spend the whole time going to the science stream or the film stream or the comics stream or you could spend the whole con gaming (people do.) Most kids of school age and above like conventions, among other reasons because they get to be treated pretty much like any adult attendee. This one is supposed to be particularly inclusive and cosplay, not a feature of most SF cons, is being encouraged.

I know he can be a dick, but he isn't always a dick, and when he's being serious about fannish matters he's least likely to be a dick.

But he is a totally divisive figure and therefore should never have been considered in the atmosphere that currently pervades fandom. Loncon 3 has pledged to support diversity and to implement a policy that makes everyone feel safe at conventions. Furthermore, there will be unaccompanied teenagers, probably in skimpy costume, and very young children at this convention. Ross is an entirely inappropriate choice. His wife now, who has far better credentials than he has, would have been a much better choice.

This is true - and I feel sorry that, as a result of what was apparently genuine offer to help the con out on his part (he must have been looking forward to attending) was not handled more sensitively by the con chairs. A simple 'thank you for the offer but we need to consult' or even a 'sorry but we already have someone else in mind' would have been more politic.

Ross's reputation (like that of Harlan Ellison) is not one that gives any confidence that he would abide by the diversity rules that are now a part of con culture, and, sadly celebs don't often get second chances.

Er did anyone discuss that with him? Or did we just leap to the conclusion he'd misbehave?

Shakes head. It's like people don't recognise that most individuals have different registers of behaviour in different circumstances. Ellison has been a pig at cons is my understanding. Ross is someone I dislike and I think he got off too lightly with the phone call debacle with that even bigger dickhead brand but... It's a bit harsh to assume axiomatically that he wouldn't behave properly.

This is not the point.

The point is that the decision to invite him was always going to generate a great deal of heat. The con chairs should have realised this. They did not. The result was a twitter/facebook/staff meeting meltdown.

Loncon 3 has declared itself to be a convention that will acknowledge diversity and make itself a safe space for everyone. Giving a high profile job to someone with a reputation for sexist, anti-trans and plain offensive remarks was never going to go through on the nod. Maybe he would have behaved himself, but who wants to take that risk with teens and children present? At least one large female author who is probably going to be nominated for one of the Hugos stated that she would be afraid to attend, given that Ross is given to making sarcastic sizest comments.

Many people were bound to think giving Ross the job (that, by the way, has never been done by a pro-presenter and that has a reputation of being a problem area) was just asking for the fannish meltdown which duly happened. I am not, currently, criticising Ross (who I cordially dislike and who I would have avoided) but saying that this spat was perfectly avoidable (by telling Ross that someone else had already been approached, even if that was a lie) and should have been anticipated. As it is, it is all over the fucking internet, some posts approving, some supporting Ross. It's a mess that will not go away, and it was totally unnecessary!

I heard that he was recommended for the role by Neil Gaiman. I guess Loncon 3 thought that if Gaiman was suggesting it, attendees would be cool with it.

But the Con Chairs are still saying nothing about that - it all seems to be operating by rumour and speculation. We know Ross and Gaiman are friends, and Gaiman has not been much involved with SF fandom as such for some years. What I would be interested to know, if Gaiman was indeed involved, was whether the Con Chairs asked Gaiman to approach him, or whether Gaiman suggested him to the Con Chairs and they went with it.

The Con Chairs are experienced people and Alice Lawson, in particular, has worked for diversity and to make conventions a safe space in the past. They have been witnesses, as has everyone in fandom, to the Readercon fiasco and the SFWA dust-ups. They've been on Twitter and Facebook throughout that time so, damn it, they should have been aware.

Half a dozen years ago, this might have passed. That was when, in answer to your other question, people like Harlan Ellison kept being invited to appear because, though everyone knew he was an asshole, he was our asshole, talented and vaguely entertaining. He was given a pass. Until he groped Connie Willis on stage (I believe at a Hugo awards ceremony.) A step too far for most -- though by no means all -- of us. It could equally be called the "but that's just Harlan [insert name of choice] being Harlan [insert name of choice]" defence.

Looking through those tweets I saw Jonathan Ross mentioning Gaiman. That may be the only mention of him at all.

"I agreed because I love sf. And because Neil Gaiman asked me."

That doesn't necessarily mean that the Con was taking to Gaiman at all.

Thanks for explaining that defence. Essentially "boys will be boys" right? Heck, groping someone on stage isn't even the last straw. It means things are way out of hand. If he's prepared to grope someone on stage, what is he up to backstage? :S

Personally, I think it's a refreshing change that the Known Asshole Defense isn't being deployed here the way it was with Ellison for so many years.

I have seen some 'Known Asshole Defense' comments on Facebook, at least, but that just makes the decision worse.

What's the "known asshole defence"?

The idea that someone is routinely a jerk to women, so women who went near him knew, or should have known, what they were getting into, and therefore have no right to complain when he behaves badly to him.

Ah... that sounds slightly different from how Lil put it. I mean, certainly when you get to the point where he's groping someone on stage, the argument seems to be "well you went onstage with him", which is exactly as bad as the argument you just relayed.

Still, I got the impression from Lil's description that some people would have had a milder form of the defence earlier on, where they were simply excusing dodgy comments - whereby his groping a woman on stage would be seen as the final straw. Can someone hold to that defence simply in order to defend dodgy comments with the presumption (naively or not) that no one is actually in danger of being assaulted?

It seems pretty similar to me. My expression of it is just a bit more general, and thus a bit more useful, than "you went on stage with him" but aside from that it's the same thing.

Using the "everybody knows he's a jerk; if you don't like that kind of attention why where you around him?" defense (or attack, depending on how you look at it) doesn't actually strike me as better when we're talking about Harlan walking up to female strangers at parties and saying "Hi--what would you say to a little fuck?" Which he was notorious for doing. I want to be able to go to a party without having to plan ahead how I will deflect unwanted sexual attention--that is not something men generally have to worry about, after all.

"Dodgy comments" make a space harder for women (or minorities or gays or trans people or fat people) to negotiate comfortably. They establish that "true people" own this space, and a woman/minority/gay/trans/fat person who comes here is here on sufferance and must take whatever true people feel like dishing out. Women/minorities/gays/trans/fat people inhabited public spaces for years on this understanding but now we're/they're getting tired of it. That is absolutely as it should be.

Yeah, now I come to think of it, I was being a little pedantic there.

Thank you very much for explaining it to me. Thanks to you and Lil both, it makes a lot more sense to me now - so I'll definitely know what is meant by the "known asshole defence" next time someone mentions it. :)

I think I may have been a bit prickly just now; sorry about that.

You are quite welcome for the explanation.

The canonical version of it in fandom: "Oh, that's just Harlan, everybody knows how he is."

More broadly, the idea that having a reputation for being an asshole gets you a free pass on assholic behavior rather than any kind of pushback not to be an asshole.

Further information: the term comes from here, and is not necessarily limited to either sexism or sexual harassment. If talking about your abusive professor or boss gets the reaction of a shrug and "that's just how he is" from others, that's the Known Asshole Defense in action, whether you're male or female.

Edited at 2014-03-04 05:12 am (UTC)

I was happy to see he had withdrawn. May the con go more smoothly as a result.

I wouldn't have invited him, wouldn't have attacked him publicly the way this was done... but yes, a mess.

A lot of us were simply asking what were the reasons behind this particular decision, on which the committee was not, apparently, consulted. Ross does, of course, dish it out himself. Perhaps some members of fandom shouldn't have gone to his level, but much of the outrage was plainly genuine. And it was noticeable that normally very reasonable people (quite a few of them pros) were early objectors on the con Twitter feed.

As I understand it, while this might seem like a whole twitter-based storm-in-a-teacup situation, apparently some of the escalation is result of Jonathan Ross' own twitter comments.

I think exhibit A is this:

Just in case it disappears:
Ale ‏@wasteofpaint Mar 1
"Pay £115 for #loncon3 and then find out @wossy is hosting the #HugoAwards. Good to know women and other minorities need not attend, then."

Jonathan RossVerified account

"@wasteofpaint absurd. I'll happily buy the ticket off you and give it someone less stupid."

Other responses from Ross further down in the conversation include:
"sure. Happy to. I don't relish the though of spending an evening with such small minded people."
"sure. Providing they stop whining."

"wow. You're a dick."

Most of his responses have actually been a great deal more appropriate than that, but it's hard not to escalate things on twitter - and I think he's rather shot himself in the foot by making some of these comments.

Just to point out that it has now become clear, in the Con Chairs' own apology, that they did not warn Ross that there might be some adverse reaction - something they knew, because a committee member had resigned over the issue, after a week or so of argument with them. (Presumably they thought that that committee member would be the only objector.) I admit that when I read the post made on the subject, I congratulated her for sticking to her principles, but waited for the actual announcement - the same morning - in the hope that there would be some sort of explanation as to why they thought Ross was a great choice. All we got was a sort of "Wow, aren't we lucky to have him come and host the Hugos. Rejoice!"

Edited at 2014-03-05 06:19 am (UTC)

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