On “Rights”: Speech, Opinion, and Harassment at Conventions

I owe a lot to fandom and the con-runners who organize conventions like the World Science Fiction Convention. My first two books, Plagues and Writing and the Digital Generation, were directly inspired by World Cons and I tested and refined the ideas in Reboot at several others. The pros who attend these events, from Greg Bear to David Brin to John Scalzi to Mary Robinette Kowal and many others, have influenced my career in both subtle and overt ways since my first con in 2001. And, of course, I have started many wonderful friendships over these weekends as well.

Needless to say, over the past few weeks I have watched the unfolding online debate regarding sexual harassment at conventions with (self) interest and trepidation. For those unfamiliar with recent events, see this post on MRK’s site from Elise Matthesen, this response from Maria Dahvana Headley I reblogged earlier, and this page that summarizes and collects other reactions.

As both a fan and a rhetorician, these reactions fascinate me. I was particularly intrigued (and frustrated) by the responses to Scalzi’s Convention Harassment Policy, which I co-signed here. Scalzi posted a fairly lengthy response to the responses to his policy here and MRK similarly identified, and spectacularly dismantled, one particular type of response here.

I won’t quote from Scalzi or MRK’s posts here, though I’d like to, because I try to keep my online presence at a PG-13 rating, at most, and these pieces use expletives to stunning effect. I recommend readers follow the links to read for themselves, so long as you know what you will find.

But to summarize the particular line of response I want to focus on in this post, several commentators and respondents condemned those like Scalzi and MRK on “free speech” grounds. This argument (if you can call it that) rests on two inter-related premises:

  1. Such policies infringe on the right to free speech of con-goers and therefore asking creepers/harassers to curb their behavior (since there is a substantial verbal component to harassment) is unacceptable.
  2. Those who object to and/or reject policies and stances like Scalzi’s cannot be criticized themselves because they are simply exercising their own rights to free speech.

Now, the response to these responses also breaks down along two paths:

  1. The First Amendment to the US Constitution only protects us from the government putting us in jail or otherwise punishing us for the words we use and this right is not absolute.
  2. Free speech does not mean freedom from consequences or criticism for what spews out of our mouths. If and when others use their own right to condemn or reject our speech, we can’t object on “freedom” grounds.

Over the past week, these responses have been rattling around in my head (an occupational hazard for writers) and I couldn’t stop thinking about how much these debates reminded me of conversations I have with my students every semester.

I teach First-Year Writing at the college level and students often struggle with the nuances and complexities of the concept of “opinion,” and understandably so. We use this term in so many different and conflicting ways that it has essentially become, I tell them, meaningless. After all, we can hear “opinion” being used to describe everything from the Brown v. Board decision in 1954 (or the more recent Shelby County v. Holder or United States v. Windsor rulings) to Mike Golic’s take on whether or not the Kansas City Chiefs used the first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft wisely.

I watch and/or listen to sports commentary quite a bit, especially during football season, and I hear two phrases that invoke opinion so often that I can completely understand my students’ confusion: “Hey, that’s just my opinion” and “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”

Putting aside the usage error of “everyone” and “their” in the latter phrase, this combination of ideas leads to several rhetorical problems whenever we try to have a complicated debate, like the one currently going on in fandom.

The first is that we’ve beaten any sense of meaning out of the word opinion and rendered it useless for communication in many instances. What most people mean when they use the word “opinion,” I’ve noticed, is instead a conclusion or judgment that they’ve reached based more or less on an analysis of evidence. Or, on the opposite pole, they mean a gut response or knee-jerk reaction that involves little thought, if any. Using “opinion” to cover both of these situations is an obstacle to say the least.

The second is that the “just my opinion” construct is used as a trump card to end all conversation. After all, if we are all entitled to our opinions, then how can we move beyond that? We’re entitled. This is similar to the free speech objection above.

Finally, just like the limits on speech rights, we are not entitled to turn our “opinions” into actions that harm others and then weasel out of the consequences because we have a “right to our own opinions.” This is the sentence I was most scared to write in the entire piece, and why it took me almost a week of thinking to actually do it. Even now, after all that pondering, I almost typed qualifying phrases like “could harm others” or “we must be careful when we turn our opinions into actions.”

But this point in my career, and my fandom, is not the time for equivocation so here it is again: It is not okay to turn our opinions into actions that harm others and then weasel out of the consequences because we are “entitled” to such opinions. In terms of the current fandom debates, this means that if it is your opinion that con-goers who dress in any sort of hall costume (read, women cos-players) should expect to be harassed because they “ask for it,” and then you act on that opinion either by being a creeper, ignoring a creeper, or refusing to institute a harassment policy at a con you run, then that is not okay. And the same applies to so many of the other “opinions” so thoroughly dismantled by Scalzi and MRK.

Moving beyond conventions and fandom, though, we also need to consider those times when our opinions turn into actions that can harm others. For example, if we form an opinion based on bad information or faulty “science” or some unexamined ideology, and then vote for a referendum and/or a lawmaker who will pass laws that hurt others (but not ourselves), that is not okay either.

To invoke a familiar, and perhaps over-used, geek maxim: with great power comes great responsibility. The same applies to our rights, whether to speech or our own opinions. We must take more care with how we exercise each.

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7 comments on “On “Rights”: Speech, Opinion, and Harassment at Conventions

  1. Nicely said, Heather. I’d like to add that choosing to speak is an action. Speech is not just an opinion, it’s an attempt to reshape the world. We each have a choice on how we want to shape the world Someone can use their words to make the world a better place, as you are, or to harm others.

    • hurban1 says:

      Thanks, Mary. And you are absolutely right about the connection between speech and action. That is one of the reasons I was so nervous about making this post. I’ve been pondering taking that step, going “public,” for almost a week.

  2. Melodie Selby says:

    Thank you for this. It’s so easy to just stay quiet. I appreciate your courage and I agree with you. I don’t go to cons, mostly because the few fans I met when I was young turned me off so much that it didn’t sound fun. I have seen (some) progress in the workplace in the last 30 years. But it only happens if people speak up – both those who are harassed and those who witness it. So I’m really happy to see this topic brought into the open.

    • hurban1 says:

      Thanks, Melody. I didn’t know any con-going fans before I went to my first World Con and I’m pretty sure I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t know if I would have attended if I had heard some of these stories.

      But even in the past two years I have seen a major shift in what is acceptable behavior and what is not, unfortunately because of high-profile incidents like this. I’m sure I speak for many fans who would welcome you to a con if you’d like to join us.

  3. Ken says:

    Some people seem to think “I have a right to my opinion” means “I have a right to utter my opinion without anyone criticizing it or exercising their freedom of association to shun me as a result of my opinion.” It doesn’t. Criticism, condemnation, shunning, and other social consequences aren’t censorship. They’re what we have instead of censorship. The “free speech means you shouldn’t make me feel bad about what I have to say” is frankly incoherent.

    • hurban1 says:

      And yet, for all its incoherence, it is also surprisingly resilient. No wonder my students struggle with the concept of analysis as different than “opinion.”

  4. shadowandi says:

    In my honest opinion, this post is right on. But after a careful analysis of historical evidence, the gist of this post scares me. Is that what you mean about the difference between analysis and opinion?

    I respect your right to make this post, and I applaud you for it. I also respect the rights of Ku Klux Klan members, Anti-Abortion advocates, and NRA lobbyists. In my opinion, those Far Right fanatics are out of their minds. But after a careful consideration of the evidence, I recognize that they allow me to lean very far left without tipping over the whole boat. I dream of a day when my political opponents recognize that disagreements are the foundation of democracy. Until then, I only ask them to remember that the world is complicated, and there’s room enough for two sides of a coin.

    Please note that I am in favor of Anti-Harassment Policies. It’s only Anti-Freedom overtones to this debate which disturb me. Can we not just say that a healthy debate is currently in place, and the healthier side seems to be winning? Do we really need to drag Free Speech into the fight? Did it do something wrong? For some reason, it seems to me like Free Speech is doing its job exactly as intended…

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