Wednesday, August 1, 2012

zero tolerance: for people who love black and white

Social Justice Warriors: Do Not Engage: zero tolerance: for people who love black and white


  1. While I agree that Readercon's existing policy was not necessarily well thought-out, and might be due for a change, it IS the policy they went with. I can't see how they get to change it on the fly.

    1. Well, they're effectively declaring that the old policy is being changed, even if they haven't decided what the new one is. I don't believe bad rules should be enforced simply because they're the rules.

  2. Not following their own policy is very bad form. It erodes trust, etcetera, etcetera.

    I do wonder how many people would be calling a two year ban a "slap on the wrist" if it had been their response in the absence of a zero tolerance policy with a much harsher "required" punishment that had previously been enforced, though.

    1. I dunno. I have more trust in people who aren't slaves to bad policies.

      Agreed that vindictive people get upset when sentences become less harsh.

      I do think Readercon should announce a new policy ASAP, and it ought to be something like a minimum of a one-year ban, a sentencing guideline rather than an inflexible rule.

    2. If they wanted to change it, they should have done it before there was a complaint against somebody they liked. As it is, they seem to be saying "We're cool with enforcing inflexible rules as long as they're only used against people who are fringe members of the community." (Of course, I'd have more sympathy for them if there seemed to be any question as to the facts of the case.)

      Sentencing guidelines are a reasonable way to go for a re-write. They're still going to come across as jerks whatever they do at this point, but it'd be nice if they managed to write a good policy.

    3. People rarely figure out a rule is stupid until they try it. See prohibition of alcohol or drugs.

      Alas, humans being human, it is less likely for people to notice a rule is stupid until it affects someone they know.

    4. Unfortunately, the rule has been tried before, and someone has been permabanned as a result.

      There's a difference between realizing a rule is bad and changing it the first time it's tested, and treating different people differently based on how well you like them. It's human nature, but when it happens people call you on it.

      I think the broader point is this -- had they permabanned him as per their policy, by now the whole thing would have blown over. He wouldn't get to go to Readercon, but after a brief period of controversy the rest of his fannish life would have continued (albeit with other cons keeping a closer eye on his behavior).

      By trying to vary the rule, Readercon's dealt his reputation a potentially fatal blow. They've done immeasurably more damage to his life in fandom than the permaban would have done.

      I'm with you in regards to Zero Tolerance. It's a bad idea. You always want the room for flexibility. But selectively enforcing the policy that is on the books hasn't been a kindness to anyone.

      I'm reminded of Watergate (because my sense of perspective is skewed, but bear me out). It wasn't the break-in that brought down the Nixon Presidency, it was the coverup and the attempt to mitigate/damage control that did. The Internet Justice machine that's been unleashed, with all their chainsaws and shotguns and blunt judgment, was unleashed by the Readercon decision more than the actual harassment. And in so doing, they've brought huge wrath against Walling.

      You're right -- the policy was bad. They should have had a more flexible one. (The agreed-upon facts of the case suggest that what Walling did was egregious enough to bring down the maximum penalty, but that's as may be for this discussion.) But given that they didn't and given that they've banned another person before under the same policy for (by account) less egregious behavior, the message that comes across isn't choosing not to enforce a bad policy, but nepotism and hypocrisy.

      This is coupled by the degree to which Readercon was using their Zero Tolerance policy as a selling point of the convention. I had heard in other venues before this happened that Readercon prided itself as being the 'safe' convention, that took the safety and boundaries of its attendees seriously. The message this sends is that they only used that for its marketing value.

      This is the Readercon board's bed and fault. We can use this as an object lesson against zero tolerance and a cautionary tale for what happens when you're perceived as being corrupt whether that was the intention or not. However, Readercon's board should have enforced the policy they had on the books, and then used this as justification to revise and remake the policy into one with nuance.

      The explosion that followed was predictable. With luck, other conventions will revise their rules in its wake, but if they don't, one at least hopes they don't try to break them for their friends. That way lies censure and a lot of pain, for the concom and for said friends.

    5. If it's a bad policy, it's bad to stand by it. Yes, it would be bad to make an exception, then go back to the old policy. But really, who would say we should stop burning heretics, but since we've got a policy and we burned some in the past, we must burn the ones we've caught?

      If a minimum ban of of one or two years and public exposure as a harasser becomes the new policy, is that really the same as making a place unsafe?

      Hmm. One more point: historically, when bad rules are changed, people who had been convicted have their sentences commuted. Is the problem that Readercon didn't change the policy officially (rather than de facto) before sentencing Welling?

      Whether his circumstances and the other person's are comparable, I haven't a clue. Worse offenders should get tougher sentences, something zero tolerance does not permit.

    6. But the consequence of not standing by it is the consequence they -- and indirectly Walling -- have reaped. It is at best a sketchy situation, particularly given some of the other aspects of the case. (Walling had a previous history of similar behavior, for example. Walling had several friends act as character witnesses, but someone who had been previously accosted by him wasn't allowed to give testimony.)

      If the core of this is going back to the idea of being fair, that fairness would have necessitated Walling's personal friends to recuse themselves from the deliberation.

      The consensus opinion, given the facts of the case (which are not actually in dispute on any side), is that had there been a gradated system of punishment, Walling would have warranted the maximum to begin with. He had a known history. He was told to stop contact and persisted throughout the weekend. He disregarded direct and firm requests to stop bothering the victim. There were multiple eyewitnesses who reported this.

      Why would someone like that get a lighter sentence than someone else who hadn't acted as egregiously, except because of personal connections? Again, these aren't facts in dispute.

      I agree with you that zero tolerance is bad. I'm wondering if your dislike of zero tolerance is blinding you to the fact that Walling's punishment would have been insufficient even given a nuanced policy, so actually disregarding a zero tolerance policy on top of that just fans the flame of pretty justified outrage.

  3. As somebody who is often a fringe member of communities and usually identifies with outsiders in any case, uneven enforcement of the rules actually hits more of my buttons than stupid rules. :) I reckon if they had to be consistent and logical, they'd be a lot more likely to think carefully before writing a rule in the first place. But, you know, humans. Ain't gonna happen.

    1. Yep, ain't gonna happen. Things like this tend to bring out the anarchist in me, because rules rarely fit anyone perfectly.

    2. On a slight tangent:

      Rules that treat people who show signs of remorse more leniently aren't necessarily a good idea since they tend to give an advantage to people who have a talent for faking expected emotional responses (common in sociopaths)* and a disadvantage to people who have atypical affect, but may not be dangerous (sometimes associated with serious mental illness, but also common in those who have suffered head injuries or have neuro-developmental disorders such as autism). Additionally, people from different cultures may show remorse in ways that aren't as obvious to the dominant American culture.

      So, if you go that route, there's a fair chance you'll be treating the most dangerous people as if they've done the least harm.

      *I'm not saying Walling is a sociopath. His apparent remorse or lack of it isn't a good way to judge, though.

    3. And on another slight tangent:

      Rules that treat people who readily admit guilt more leniently than those who claim innocence also aren't necessarily a good idea. The tend to encourage the governing authorities to pressure confessions in order to avoid the bother of a proper investigation and encourage people who haven't done anything wrong to falsely admit guilt in order to avoid the most serious repercussions. (That is, of course, the problem with plea bargaining among other things.)

    4. serial, there just ain't no way to have a perfectly fair system. Yes, people can fake remorse. That's why judges try to judge sincerity. It's why we have systems like probation to test whether someone is really ready to be returned to society. It's why we punish first offenders less harshly than repeat offenders.

      Simply ignoring remorse in sentencing creates its own set of problems. Expert witnesses and character witnesses are useful, even though not everyone who ought to have them can have them.

    5. What are the problems created by ignoring remorse in sentencing?

    6. serial, in the case of the prison system, it boils down to resources. It's cheaper to spend less money on people who're less likely to be repeat offenders. Now, if your purpose is vengeance or setting examples, you want as many heads on spikes as possible, so then remorse is irrelevant.

    7. The end result with prisons in the current system is that they're full of lower class people with mental illnesses who wouldn't be dangerous if they could get proper medical treatment, those who have previously suffered head injuries who may or may not be dangerous, and innocent people who either pled guilty because they were told that was going to cause them less harm than insisting on the truth or who decided to fight the charges and lost.

      :) But I'm sure there are a few people who actually belong in prison, too.

      In any case, I'm not sure making a miniature version of the legal system with all of the same problems is really an advisable goal for a concom that has none of the resources available to the American government.


    9. "I'm not sure making a miniature version of the legal system with all of the same problems is really an advisable goal"

      Agreed. That's why I support a more flexible model.

      And good link. My guess, based on studies that show people identify their kind more by accent than physical appearance, is that also applies to people who have accents and use grammar in the ways that jury likes.

  4. "he will learn who his true friends are"

    And, in case anyone is wondering, those will be whoever sits him down and says "Rene, what you did was very troubling and I can't keep being your friend unless you are willing to change how you interact with people, particularly women. Here are some ideas that may help..."

    1. Did you see this?

  5. Seems to me he knows who his friends are already--they're the ones that got him off very, very easy compared to the stated punishment for such an offense, and it should be noted that the man is a repeat offender. It isn't the convention board's job to judge how sorry he is, or whether or not he can be rehabilitated. It is their job to provide an entertaining convention were everyone can feel welcome and safe.

    How are any of the female attendees, especially this man's victims, supposed to feel safe knowing that just two years down the line this man will be back? That anyone who behaves in such a way will get off so easily? That if they feel afraid for their safety in place that should be fun, the convention board will not take them seriously?

    Your scenario assumes that this action will haunt him, that he will walk across the convention floor with the crowds parting before him enduring whispers of "Look at that, it's that sexual harasser! Let's shun him!". This is almost never what happens in cases such as these. His face is not well known, and in two years the name recognition will have died down. He does not need to repair his behavior, he just needs to wait for the next distraction to wipe his slate clean. He will happily continue enjoying the con. He may even wait a few cons more before continuing to pursue women who have told him no, to wait by the exits for them, to put his arms around them and invade their space and claim he was just flirting despite being warned.

    Meanwhile his victims will face a choice: will they stay home when they could be out having fun at Readercon? Or will they go to the convention and spend their stay stressed out, looking over their shoulders, wondering if they are going to see an unwelcome but familiar face, wonder if he will retaliate and try to harm her reporting him--and I'm not being dramatic here, stalking has led to many countless assaults and murders because the victims could not get police or a court to take them seriously.

  6. *continued from above*

    It is doubtful that this case will come to that, but every woman is aware of what she is risking when she openly reports a man, and that fear is always there, even when reporting incidents that seem--seem--so much smaller than what usually ends up on the news. The fear of retaliation from a stronger party--and the absolute anger in knowing there is little you can do about it--is always there, and it infests and ruins a person's sense of privacy and safety. There is no way this man can exist in the same convention as his victims and not cause them distress, even after his tiny (TWO WHOLE CONVENTIONS!) probation is over. He has ruined Readercon for these ladies, but not for himself.

    If the harasser truly is sorry for his actions, he can take his better behavior to another venue. His "redemption arc" is not the business of Readercon, but the well being of their attendees is. The Readercon board is essentially trading in the attendance of multiple ladies who have done nothing wrong, for a harasser who very much has.

    Is a lifetime ban too much? I don't know. Two years might be adequate punishment if Readercon was someplace he went to every day, but it's one week a year. He isn't going to be spending the next two years mulling over his actions, he is going to say "Oh hey, Readercon was this week, I could have gone if not for that bitch. Oh well I guess I'll just do something else with my time." Two weeks of punishment for multiple offenses is far from enough.

    It should also be said that the lifetime ban was used effectively to past victim's satisfaction in the past. Readercon used to tout it as a badge of honor. Suddenly deciding it is too much now--now that someone the board knows is on the chopping block--reeks of favoritism. "yeah, that guy before was a creep but I know Rene and NOBODY I hang out with could EVER be a creep! That's just impossible!" The victim in this case did not feel she could no longer attend Readercon because she was harassed there--she felt she could no longer attend because the board essentially told her "Yeah, it happened, but it wasn't a big deal. We'll talk like it is, we will give lipservice, but no, if it were actually important we'd have done more." A lack of action following harassment does more harm than the harassment itself. So frankly, if the punishment happens to ruin the harasser's day (oh, poor baby can't go to one con out of many!) than that is nothing to feel sorry about.

    1. So far as I know, I've never seen Walling in person, but I've seen his photo enough now that I'm likely to recognize him.

      I'll certainly recognize his name.

      One question to ask is what you want. If it's vengeance, a lifetime ban is reasonable--or it's not harsh enough. If it's to send a message that harassment will result in shaming and a period of ejection from a valued community, that message has been sent. I think people are more likely to rehabilitate themselves when they're treated with a degree of mercy.

      Do note that no one--so far as I know--has denied the women's accounts of what happened. The only question is whether Readercon should be allowed to change its policy. I hate arguments that bad rules should be kept in order to teach respect for rules. That teaches me to have no respect for authoritarians.

    2. this is Elizabeth from above, I didn't realize I was logged into a friends account before (same first name)

      Readercon has every right to change it's policy. I don't think they should, but it is not up to me how the board and committee run their convention. However I feel it is very bad form to do so in the middle of an incident. When Walling harassed these women, the zero tolerance rule was in effect. When his harassment was reported, the zero tolerance rule was in effect. That it was changed during his investigation--that he was allowed to provide character witnesses, while past victims reports were not taken into account--leaves a strong impression that the rule was changed because it simply became inconvenient or uncomfortable to enforce, and those are not reasons to change a rule. If the board truly felt that the zero tolerance policy was not working, they should have enforced it anyway while it was still in effect, and then allowed Walling to appeal after a new rule was written.

      I am not after vengeance here. I don't think it is vengeful to want an organization enforce its own rules. If Readercon had done so, then the harassment would just be an unfortunate incident that happened but was dealt with. I absolutely do not think the hypothetical shaming or embarrassment a person could suffer because of their own behavior should have any bearing on how the rules are applied. Embarrassment is not punishment enough--the punishment laid down in the convention guidelines is punishment enough. That's why the punishment, a lifetime banning, was stated so clearly in the first place. Saying "Oh but this will embarrass you? Well I guess the rules don't apply then" is not okay. If the man is embarrassed on top of being banned, well then that's just what happens when you do something wrong. Sometimes when you do something wrong and get called on it, you have to suck it up and take the consequences, no matter how sorry you feel. That's part of being an adult.

    3. continued

      I am not after vengeance. If I were I would say that this man should be shamed and shunned by everyone he meets and never be allowed to show his face at any con ever, ever, etc. I happen to believe that he will endure little shaming (at least in real life, he will probably get his share of online flames) and I think he is welcome to attend any convention where he did not violate the rules, not that I'd be happy to see him there.

      I'm more angry at the Readercon board than I am at this man, because the zero tolerance rule, regardless of whether or not it is too extreme, at least sent a message that the board understood how serious sexual harassment is. But their behavior now goes back on that. It says to me and to many that they do not take sexual harassment as seriously as they previously claimed. In fact their response gives the impression that they don't take it seriously at all--so not only do attendees feel angry, they feel betrayed. The hotel Readercon was at would have punished him worse for stealing towels.

      If I spoke passionately enough to give the impression I wanted vengeance on Walling personally, it is only because I am tired, very tired, of seeing so many similar incidents shrugged off, so many victims told they are blowing things out of proportion, told "but think about how you are going to ruin his life before you report him". Being told "Give him a chance to get better" is not going to make anyone feel safer, and sexual harassment policy should be about safety first, and not just lipservice to women's groups. I do realize nobody has denied the events, I never implied that they were denied, but I do mean to say that the events were not taken seriously as they should be.

      Some people rehabilitate themselves when treated with mercy. Others will repeat their bad behavior over and over again so long as they think that they'll be forgiven at the first "I'm sorry". Whichever of these Walling is doesn't matter, because like I said above, it is not Readercon's job to rehabilitate him, nor is it the board's affair whether he rehabilitates or not. It is the job of the Readercon runners to provide an entertaining convention for their guests, and that includes ensuring to whatever degree they are able the safety of those guests. The point I was making above is that so long as repeat offenders are allowed to roam unchecked, Readercon has failed to assure their guests well being. How sorry or not Walling is has nothing to do with that. They have no responsibility to bet on his conscience--and if they make that bet and loose, then they are all the more culpable. If Walling comes back to Readercon and resumes his past behavior, than the victims would certainly have grounds to sue Readercon for not doing enough to keep him out through there was fair warning of his behavior.

    4. "However I feel it is very bad form to do so in the middle of an incident."

      If a rule is wrong, it's wrong to enforce it. Look at alcohol prohibition, or executing deserters and thieves--should old sentences be enforced when old rules have been found wanting?

      I have gotten the impression Walling has become a symbol of male oppression. Or perhaps there's another reason you can equate a two-year banishment and effectively universal exposure as an abuser as being "allowed to roam unchecked."

      And they kicked him out once. If he comes back--in his position, I'm not sure I would--all eyes will be on him. If he misbehaves, anyone can go to the committee, say he "resumed his past behavior", and have him expelled.

      Now, I doubt his victims can sue Readercon for letting him hang around in public spaces and touching people on the shoulder. But perhaps there's a lawyer who would take the case.

      Please note that from everything I've heard, he was wrong and Readercon was right to ban him. When I say his judges should be allowed to judge, I'm only saying their decision is not a slap on the wrist that allows him to roam unchecked. It was an attempt to punish fairly, based on their assessment of Walling and the likelihood that he would be a repeat offender.

    5. "It was an attempt to punish fairly, based on their assessment of Walling and the likelihood that he would be a repeat offender."

      That's actually one of the problematic aspects -- Walling had already committed such offense in the past, and had professed remorse and contrition. The likelihood of his being a repeat offender would, by history, be significant.

      Hm. How about this. What if they had announced that they were following the policy, and instituting a permanent ban on Walling. However, concerns about such a draconian measure had arisen, not only in regards to Walling but previous people banned under the policy. As a result, Readercon was going to institute an appeals process that would take place no less than two years after the date the ban was imposed, wherein an offender could petition for reinstatement based upon behavior and signs of actual contrition. Such reinstatement would only be granted upon approval of the entire extended Con Committee.

      Wouldn't that have obviated the issue? And more to the point, wouldn't it have done so in a way that erred on the side of safety, on the side of vindicating the victim, and on the side of having the offender prove himself worthy rather than assuming he would be?

    6. Offhand, an appeals process sounds decent to me. I think that's implied by what they did announce, that if more damning info came out, they would extend the ban.

  7. I'm not convinced that he will be marked for life in the community. I think memory does not last that long, and in the end, I believe people will be more likely to avoid Readercon than they are likely to look at this man and remember that he's been accused of harassing multiple women.

    I do believe he'll do it again **unless** someone is able to get him to understand what part(s) of his behavior was wrong. And that will only happen if he wants to understand.

    As an aside, I had a friend, working as a professor, that was accused of harassing multiple female students and having the college cover up the harassment. He finally agreed to leave his position, and the story that emerged was pretty ugly, as one might imagine. It was painful, as a friend, to watch that go down. I wanted to both slap him and hug him. That said, I think his punishment was not harsh enough; I'm not convinced he stopped the behavior that landed him in trouble; and last I heard, the matter did not stop him from progressing in his field, although his behavior did result in those students dropping out of school.

    Which is a long winded way of saying I think it too easy to walk away from charges of harassment. And I think that's exactly what happened here. And as a woman, I don't trust Readercon to be a safe place.

    1. elionwyr, that can be an argument for being less harsh: banish someone, and you just send them elsewhere. Give them a chance to come back if they change, and they have a good reason to change.

      And keep in mind the Readercon is not covering this up.

    2. I don't think elionwyr's point is an argument for being less harsh at all. Letting someone off with a slap on the wrist (in my opinion going from a full ban down to just two years is a slap) does not send a message that they have to change, it sends a message that they can get away with few consequences. It sends a message that Readercon is a place where known offenders will be welcomed back, and that is not going to make women feel safe there. It sends a message that Readercon is more concerned with reforming poorly behaved guests than keeping well behaved ones. Readercon is not staffed by security guards and parole officers keeping an eye out for red-flag guests, it is staffed by volunteers juggling a lot of responsibilities. It is their policy, not their presence, that is able to create a safe environment.

    3. Elizabeth, I hope I never have to endure your idea of a slap on the wrist. And though you think it would be nothing, I hope you don't, either.

  8. Will, it's painfully obvious that you have never been a young woman harassed by an older man she previously admired and hoped might offer some help with her career. The same type of help a man might receive without having his chest groped or drunken obscenities whispered in his ear. I have yet to speak to a female writer or artist that doesn't have a heart pounding tale or 10 of a near escape. Right this minute, I can think of 6 rape victims I am friends with and none of them bothered to report it because it's not worth it. Very few women are pro-active enough to report someone harassing them because the men in charge want to laugh it off. I was talking to women artists and venders at a Con last month(No women authors invited) and they have all had problems. I don't see any change in how inappropriate behavior is treated since I was young in the '70. Personally I've been known to yell and then attempt to yank a guys' throat out if he didn't back off but other people have been more indoctrinated into the whole being-a-lady and make-nice-don't-cause-a-scene thing.

    1. I just checked my spam folder and saw Blogger had put your comment there. Sorry 'bout that.

      What you think is "painfully obvious" is not true. The question isn't whether women are treated horribly by some men. The question's how to make the situation better.

      But this particular one's moot now. The fans of zero tolerance got their way.