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:
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.