Thursday, March 15, 2018

Positively Fourth Street, or On being banned for ... vague reasons about nearly indescribable things?

If you only want to know about the ban, skim to the third section.

Introduction: Why this, why now?

I despise few things more than whisper campaigns, so I'm going public with something that's gone on for over a year in science fiction fandom, a community that may gossip more than any other because all fans love a wild tale.

Even if it could be proved that fans gossip less than other people, the folk wisdom about gossip appears to be true: The spread of true and false news online @ Science concludes "It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1500 people" and "Falsehood also reached far more people than the truth."

1. First I am invited, then I'm not, then I am

A full history would begin with the flamewar called Racefail 09, when fandom's race reductionists objected to the fact that class often matters more than race, and I made the mistake of ironically claiming I was outing a woman who was using her full legal name in public, Google-searchable posts on her LiveJournal. But the chapter that has been kept to gossip circles begins last year, on January 10. Brad Roberts, a Board member of the Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, emailed Emma and me, saying,
Hey.. I'm running into a bit of a snag putting together 2017's friday morning seminar. I had an initial plan that's fallen apart so I've been brain storming alternate plans.

What do you two think of putting something together around the topic of writing for different mediums: read, watched, listened to, small screen, large screen, etc?

Is this something I could arm twist either or both of you into leading a seminar about? :)
We said we'd think about it and suggested other writers who could be helpful. On the 16th, Brad wrote,
Are the two of you solid enough to be considered confirmed? If not, what sort of incentives do I need find to help. :)
We said we'd decided against it, but would be glad to help out in other ways. Brad wrote on the 22nd:
Can I change your mind with a hotel room for the weekend? Any other bribery technique that'd work on you? :)
On February 4, he wrote again, saying,
Any change of heart, I'm ready to beg. You two would be great for this and I really think it's important to have at least a person or two who knows the 4th street vibe to be involved.
I liked Brad and felt bad that 4th Street was having trouble getting teachers for the Friday seminar, so I wrote back,
Well, if you're twisting, I'll agree.
During March, Brad and I and the other seminar leaders made our plans. Everything seemed to be set.

But on April 25, Brad sent a note saying someone else was lined up to do the convention. I didn't think anything of it until I learned that was't quite the case. So I sent this email to Brad and the convention's founder, Steven Brust, who, as an ex officio Board member, was supposed to be kept informed of Board decisions:
This has been nagging at me, so I thought I'd seek some clarification.

Brad seemed to be pushing hard to line me up for the writing seminar. I had mixed feelings about whether I was a good choice now that I'm doing less in the field, but I was flattered and agreed when he persisted.

Then I got bumped with this short and uninformative note:

"Thank you for being so accommodating around the seminar. I appreciate it. As it turns out, we've found someone else who can fit the bill, and we're going to go with them instead. I am extremely grateful for your willingness to step up for us."

So I went to the 4th Street site and learned that Doris Egan had been lined up and "panelists are still being recruited."

I gather I've been blackballed. My inclination is to simply avoid 4th Street, but Emma says I may be misreading the signs. If it wasn't for that business about 4th Street still recruiting panelists for the seminar, I would happily assume Brad had been writing fast and didn't realize a short note following the earlier, longer attempts to convince me might look like a brush-off.

So I'll make this blunt. Have people said my presence would trigger them, and therefore I shouldn't come to 4th Street? Or am I reading too much into being told I wasn't needed while you recruit someone else?
The Board—Alex Haist, Scott Lynch, Brad Roberts, and Janet Grouchy—had failed to keep Steve informed. So he contacted Janet and learned a little of what had happened. Around this time, Janet quit the Board in disgust with their decision to ignore the "4th Street Guidelines for Handling Sensitive Issues" which stated:
  • The Board will investigate the complaint via conversation with involved parties with as much documentation as can be obtained. 
When Steve wrote me back, he included this bit which will be relevant later:
...I've prepared a rant inspired by the whole thing, titled, "Fourth Street is not a safe space, and it shouldn't be."  I've asked Scott to make it the first panel, but he probably won't, in which case I'll be delivering it as my opening comment. 
I am unreasonably steamed about this.
Brad sent me this:
I talked you to into being a seminar leader without discussing it with the Board. Once it went up on the website, our Safety Coordinator, Alex Haist, raised some concerns. After looking into those and much discussion, the Board decided it would be better for the convention to go with someone else. If you'd like to more detail, you are welcome to discuss it directly with her. Her email is ...

You are not at all barred from the convention, and I'd be happy to see you there. I apologize for the rocky communication.
I replied:
Just for the record, what the fuck am I supposed to have done that was ever a threat to anyone beside disagreeing with people online?

It is currently extremely unlikely that I will be there.

But I do sympathize with you for being stuck in the middle.
I then wrote the Board:
I don't know why I've been blackballed. I know that I have a long history of disagreeing online with the genre's more vocal neoliberal identitarians, but so far as I know, my only offline manifestation of that has been to ignore a few people when I see them at conventions. If I am accused of behaving like [Person Y] or doing anything that might make anyone think I am not be safe to be around, I would greatly appreciate hearing about it. If I've forgotten something I did, I'll own it. If it's just more of the wild gossiping that bedevils this community, I'd like to refute it. The only thing I do not appreciate is precisely what's happened here, being judged and condemned in absentia for a crime I've not been charged with.

Hmm. Perhaps you should do a panel on Kafka.

Obviously, I do not plan to come to 4th Street.
Alex Haist emailed me:
I want to apologize for how we have handled talking to you about this; we should have talked to you sooner, and Janet shouldn't have talked with Steve so that he could explain to you what was going on. This was no way to treat you after you agreed to do the seminar, especially with Brad personally inviting you. I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that.

I'm still not sure what you've heard, so I'll lay out what happened. When the seminar page went up, we received many complaints, and I brought these Safety concerns to the Board. Your long history online and on certain panels at 4th St. are the issues. Of particular concern is your pattern of refusing to drop arguments despite direct requests and pursuing people on various social media platforms when they do not want to engage with you.

Your reputation and mode of discourse are such that the Board decided that having you represent the convention as seminar leader wouldn't be in line with the kind of inclusive culture we want to promote at 4th St. Fantasy. If you were to behave in person the way you have online--by refusing to back off when the other party was done conversing--you would not be welcome at 4th St. at all. At the moment, we have only instituted formal safety procedures as of last year, and we haven't received any formal complaints that would lead to you being banned from the convention.

Please let me know if I can clear up anything else.
I replied:
Let's see.

1. You agree that I do not behave in person the way I'm said to behave online.

2. You say I don't back down from arguments online. That's true. But as for "pursuing people", when someone is telling lies about my friends or me in public forums, I refute them. I do realize that some people take umbrage at having their stories challenged. However, as I note in my blog today, if I was guilty of abusing people online, there would be screen caps to prove it--your community has been religiously screen capping the things that upset them at least since they doxxed and terrorized Zathlazip nearly a decade ago. See

3. There was a panel that Beth Meacham moderated which I agree went abominably. However, did I call anyone names? Did I threaten anyone? Did I do anything more than disagree vigorously? Did I not submit when Beth insisted?

Ah, well. The questions here are rhetorical. No need to reply.
And I sent this note, which will also be relevant later:
I confess, what's most disappointing is that if one of you had had the common decency to come to me and say there were concerns, I would've happily stepped down for the good of the convention. I am aware that I have become a convenient demon, and I don't like seeing others suffer for that. I would've made some face-saving apology about how the workshop wouldn't fit my schedule, but I was looking forward to seeing people at the convention itself.

Instead, you have placed me in [Person Y]'s company as someone who must be rejected for safety's sake.

Someone has suggested this decision to imply I'm unsafe in public might be actionable. I don't know. I just think it is just very disappointing.
Emma sent this to the Board:
I believe it's actionable, though I wouldn't do that to Fourth Street. Here's the story that will now circulate in fannish gossip circles (because now that this has happened, word will spread; I've been in fandom for long enough to know it): Will Shetterly was kicked off programming on a local convention he helped found, because of concerns raised by the Safety Coordinator. Once that gets around, Will will be placed firmly in [Person Y] territory, and any convention considering inviting him to participate will reconsider. No one will know that your decision was made on the basis of hearsay and Things Believed on the Internet, and reinforced by his once having argued on a panel.

By doing this, in this way, you've damaged Will's personal and professional reputation and hurt his career. If Fourth Street has no respect for writers' reputations and careers, I'd say it's not the place for a working writer to have a public discussion of writing and art, two subjects that are deeply personal and intimately connected to the creator's principles and beliefs.

I also want to ask, parenthetically, if Fourth Street still welcomes discussion, disagreement, and even argument. It was founded on the idea that that was what participants wanted to do--to address passionately and with complete commitment the things that were most important to them about their craft and the ideas that drive it. If that's no longer the case, I'll accept that Fourth Street is no longer the convention I loved, and I will spare you my disruptive presence.

I'm particularly disappointed because, as usual, Scott has produced a fascinating first cut of programming. I would have loved to be part of it, even if only conversing from the audience. Brad, I'm very sorry you were caught in the middle of this; you've observed Will's behavior at Fourth Street and elsewhere, and had no idea anyone would object to his participating in programming. You only did what you'd committed to do--recruit workshop participants--and I don't believe responsibility for this falls on your shoulders.

(I'd also like to point out that Ben, Holly, and Will had already started discussions about how to organize the workshop. In addition to all the rest, you've wasted a bit of Ben and Holly's time, which can't be in endless supply.)
I emailed the Board:
My take is that sometimes communication breaks down and things go to hell, and the only way to fix them is to get everyone back in the loop, at least in the broadest strokes. So you may all make your decisions with the necessary information about my intentions, here they are:

1. I do not want 4th Street to suffer in any way.

2. While I'm disappointed that no one came to me early on, life's too short for grudges, so I'm not holding this against anyone.

3. So long as nothing new goes public, I'm content to stay quiet about this for a few days.

4. Given the fact that I was officially involved with the workshop and then was dropped from the web page, I need to make a public statement. I haven't got a clue what it should be. I'm in no hurry to do it, and I will not lie about the reason, but I do not need to explain what happened either. I just need to come up with something true that I can be content with.

5. I cannot speak for Emma, but I would like her to be there for the 30th anniversary of War for the Oaks.

So don't anyone feel they need to rush things on my account. I'll see where things are by Monday, and then I'll draft something that I'll run by Steve and Emma for approval before I post it.

Hoping you all have a good weekend--
On the 28th, I wrote Alex Haist:
I'm meeting with friends Sunday night to decide what to do Monday. I need some clarification and hope you can provide it soon.

As a workshop leader, my job would've been to teach students a little about what I've learned from 30 years as a professional writer and editor. What could I possibly do during a one-day seminar that would upset anyone? A workshop is not comparable to a panel where one might debate the validity of "cultural appropriation" and whether white people should write about black people. There's nothing to argue about when talking about the professional life—either a pro has learned something useful or hasn't.

However, given fandom, one thing is clear: Men who are perceived as sexual predators are being banned or moved from positions of authority. I have been moved from a position of authority. So far as the general public is concerned, I've been banned entirely since my name is not on the list of attendees and no reason has been offered for removing me from the workshop. So my three questions:

1. Is there is any suggestion that I have done anything out of line sexually? I need to know because it is the vilest slander.

2. If there is not, what are people afraid I would do as an instructor? Teach socialism?

3. What do you expect the public to assume from your decision to remove me from the workshop? Given fandom's history with people like [Person Y] and [Person W], I think the answer is clear.

The notion people won't talk about this is silly.You have noted that people saw the announcement and commented on it. I hope you will acknowledge that in your community, gossip is currency. Obviously, you talk about this with your friends, who talk about it with their friends, etc. I understand the board member who quit recently [Will's note: Not Janet—a Board member who quit shortly before her], who I have no memory of ever interacting with, was on a vendetta against me—I have no doubt she is spreading this story as far as she possibly can.

Answers to these questions will be very useful for deciding how to proceed tomorrow night.
Then I sent,
I apologize for having a fourth question, but it is extremely important.

4. Did any of the writing students that Emma and I have taught over the last 30 years suggest I had ever done anything wrong or was in any way incompetent?

This question is essential because the second reason people would assume I had been dropped was that I'm a bad teacher. Yet in the three decades that Emma and I have been teaching, we've gotten a lot of praise and no criticism that I remember. We don't always teach together, but obviously, we're sufficiently linked that an attack on my reputation affects hers.

I realize your community has been weaponizing poverty, that is, trying to get people fired for disagreeing with your ideology, since the doxxing and terrorizing of Zathlazip. I don't know if it's because so many of you are economically privileged that it doesn't occur to you that this matters or if it's because you believe heretics must be discredited and impoverished.

Whatever the reason, I can't see a third option. Either you dismissed me for sexual malfeasance or professional incompetence. If the latter, there must be students who think I'm a bad or abusive teacher. Are there? Did you verify that they had studied with me?

Hoping I don't think of a fifth question while you enjoy this nice weekend,
Alex replied:
The first e-mail we sent was our attempt to make a neutral statement, suitable but not intended for public consumption. It was undeniably shabby of us to invite you, and then, by drawing out the notification and website updating processes, to needlessly complicate matters and alarm you.

We are not planning to make any kind of a public statement beyond changing the website and sending attendees the final seminar line up. This has been handled as privately as possible, and there's no need to draw attention to it.

If anyone presses for a reason beyond the lineup changing, then we will tell them that Brad asked you to do the con a favor by being a seminar panelist, and we ended up not needing the favor. That is all we intend to say publicly. The goal here is to avoid, not start, drama, for either the convention or for you.

To answer your questions:

1) No. Sexual misconduct has not been remotely brought up.
2) The active 4th Street Board concluded that your mode of discourse and your pattern of pursuing conversation past the point of when the other party wants to disengage aren't in line with the inclusive culture 4th Street would like to promote. As such, you're welcome as an attendee but not a representative of the convention.
3) You're welcome to post the reasons I shared with you in a previous email if you think it's better to offer the community that much detail. It's your reputation and your call.
4) Your competence wasn't a factor in our decision.

Thanks for the heads up about your thought process.
On April 30, I sent this to the Board:
I'm back from a very pleasant evening of dinner, drinks, and music from Lojo, and I had a couple of ciders, so if there are even more typos than usual, my bad.

I just want to reassure everyone that Emma and I have less than zero intention of suing anyone. When we talk about what you've done being actionable, we're trying to point out how very badly you've misjudged the consequences—I assume you simply thought that when some people complained to the safety person, you could drop me and all would be fine.

So far as I'm concerned, as one of the founders of Fourth Street, I want it succeed; I consider everyone but Alex a friend and I credit her decisions to ignorance rather than malice; and even if for some odd reason I felt vindictive, one of my bits of quirky Christianity is “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother."
So in the interest of making peace, I went to the convention and took part in a panel. For me personally, it was a surprisingly pleasant Fourth Street.

But it was an awful convention for Steve Brust.

2. A space safe for ideas becomes a space safe from them

At Opening Ceremonies, Steve tried to share "Fourth Street is not a safe space, and it shouldn't be." Alex Haist shut him down before he could finish, which led to an enormous number of misunderstandings. I thought Steve was treated abominably—at the very least, he should have been allowed to finish speaking and then clarify his intent. Sometime during the convention, I realized I was done with Fourth Street and wouldn't be returning.

In the days after the convention, Steve's aborted speech was discussed online and off. If you want to know more, start with his accounts:

My opening remarks at Fourth Street Fantasy Convention

Followup On Fourth Street

You might also read what I wrote then:

Ideology makes you confuse the literal and the metaphorical--a bit about the 4th Street Kerfuffle

Yes, some people literally did not understand that Steve Brust was speaking metaphorically

Denying "standing": how identitarians marginalize the marginalized who disagree with them (focusing on 4th St. Fantasy)

Why it's easier to speak among free speech supporters than in a "safe space"

Four kinds of safe spaces and a question about idiom

Understanding the identitarian difficulty with metaphor and idiom

3. I was done with 4th Street, but 4th Street was not done with me

After deciding I was done with Fourth Street, I rarely thought about it. When I did, I remembered it like Minneapolis's Uptown neighborhood, a place that was fun that has been gentrified. It never occurred to me that Fourth Street was not done with me, but the convention is like a lover I ghosted—she felt obliged to tell me the relationship is over. On March 8, I woke to find this email:
Dear Will:

On April 27, 2017, as part of an email conversation regarding your removal from a programming item at the 2017 4th Street Fantasy Convention, you wrote “Someone has suggested this decision to imply I’m unsafe in public might be actionable.”

We cannot disregard this implied threat of legal action, particularly combined with your lengthy and detailed public criticism of the convention on multiple platforms. Despite your reassurance in correspondence dated April 30, 2017 that “I just want to reassure everyone that Emma and I have less than zero intention of suing anyone”, the Board of Directors has decided that we are unwilling to open ourselves to liability through further association with you.

We are therefore banning you from Fourth Street Fantasy.

We would like to resolve this privately. These are the practical steps we have taken:

• As stated above, you are banned from Fourth Street Fantasy. You will not be allowed to register for the convention or attend convention events. Please do not come to the Doubletree Hotel during the weekend of the convention.

Thank you for your service as a founder, programming participant, and long-time attendee. We wish you well in your further writing career.

Sincerely Yours,

The Fourth Street Fantasy Board of Directors

Brad Roberts
Scott Lynch
Alex Haist
Arkady Martine
Max Gladstone
To show I copied it accurately, here's the original:

(click to enlarge)

Amusingly, the letterhead is from a piece of art that uses Steven Brust in his beloved cavalier's hat as a model for an archaically dressed adventurer who leans against a lamp post. If you're attentive to symbolism, it suggests that here is light in darkness, but there may still be danger. It was a good symbol for the original Fourth Street, where competing ideas were discussed, not silenced. The current letterhead is a good symbol for the new Fourth Street—its founder has been erased.

Almost as soon as I got that, I replied,
Man, y'all are just doubling down, aren't you? Are you trying to get me to take action against you?

I know it sounds lame after you do this, but since you treated Steve so badly, I had decided not to return.

By the by, you do know I've never done anything to make anyone feel unsafe at any convention? Well, other than disagreeing with neoliberalism and identitarianism while supporting socialism, a notion that always troubles the privileged?

I then wrote Brad and Scott:
I just wanted to say I'm very disappointed by the way the two of you are handling this. I don't know the others on the board, so there's no reason I should expect them to behave like friends, or even like adults. But I had thought of you both as friends in the broad sense of the word, and, Scott, in your case, a closer sense that came from doing little favors like helping you move into your apartment. I began to suspect I was wrong when you kicked me off the panel earlier. The latest letter from the board confirms what I should've accepted earlier.

If there is some new development that I should know about that has sparked this new board decision, I would be very grateful to hear about it. But if there's not, or if you prefer to keep silent, go in peace.
And I made this post on Twitter and Facebook:
I do get tired of being disappointed by people I had thought were friends. But I suppose that's the price of having friends.
Soon afterward, I realized these things:

1. The only substance in the Board's letter is the fact that I'm banned because they're concerned I might sue them for implying I'm unsafe. Their logic is odd. If I was the sort of person who liked using the law, banning me would make me more likely to sue them. By banning me, they are giving me the only reason I might have to sue them—in earlier times, no one would have been banned for polite disagreement, so people will quite reasonably assume there must be more to the charge.

2. Their letter says I criticize the convention without citing examples because there are none. I've always supported the convention. I've only criticized its current administrators who speak as if they are the convention—L'Etat, c'est moi is the motto of all petty people who fail to see they are only caretakers.

3. The letter says the Board "would like to resolve this privately", but a ban means nothing if no one knows about it, the idea that five members of this community could keep anything private is hilarious, and there's nothing offered to resolve: the Board isn't dangling any hope of rescinding the ban if I promise to keep from criticizing them in the future. Their "privately" may mean they want to keep the story in the realm of gossip instead of making a press release, but the game of telephone began the moment a Board member told a friend I'd been banned or answered an inquiry about whether I'll be at this year's 4th Street.

So the Board has given me three choices:
a. Do nothing, thereby validating the implication that I'm banned for the same reason other men in our community have been banned. 
b. Sue the Board to make them admit that the implications of their ban are false. 
c. Make the historical record public so people may draw their own conclusions.
I'm going with Option C.

Ah, well. We live in mad times. The current Board reminds me that identitarianism is a cult. Perhaps the greatest sign of cultishness is the haste to silence those who disagree, the heretics, pagans, barbarians, and outlaws, the people who've always been part of my tribe.

Two things keep recurring to me since last Thursday. The first is Rafael Sabatini's opening to Scaramouche, "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." The second is that the only good thing about people fighting you is it says you matter. My friends think I should be upset by the Board's letter, but I'm not. I find it oddly validating.

Go in peace, Fourth Street Fantasy.

The inspiration for my title: Adolph Reed's Antiracism: vague politics about a nearly indescribable thing.

Update: Potential Fourth Street fallout—on mobbing, emotional abuse, depression, and suicide

PS. At least one person has suggested I haven't given the full story of what happened with Fourth Street. To the best of my knowledge, I've shared everything that's relevant. If I've left anything out, the Fourth Street Board is welcome to share it.