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She Said / He Said

The Shield or the Weapon

He said….

It's a shield! It's a weapon!

It’s a shield! It’s a weapon!

I want to talk about Codes of Conduct (CoC).  Both how they’re made and how they’re enforced.  Now, I am occasionally blessed with a small bit of self-knowledge so right now I am mentally hearing no small number of folks taking a sharp inhale of breath before continuing to read.  Stick with it, I don’t think this will be bad.


There has been a concerted effort in the science fiction convention scene over the past several years to make conventions a safer and more enjoyable space for everyone who attends.  I am supportive of this because I think everyone who attends a convention deserves to have the convention organizers work to try to safeguard their experience and try to make sure as many folks have a good time as possible.  While that may seem like a simple enough premise and something everyone should be able to agree on and move forward in fellowship and harmony…in practice I often find myself having more trouble with *organizers* than attendees relating to CoC issues and recently I kind of had a moment where the problem appropriately defined itself in my mind.


That’s the magic moment for me, I am always seeking it out.  It comes from my work life as a developer and project manager.  I know quite well that you can spend a lot of time trying to solve the wrong problem.  Most frequently this comes simply from defining the problem incorrectly.  How you define the problem leads directly to how you resolve it.  If you define the problem poorly, you get very bad results and make the problem worse as often as not.


So, I’ve been mulling in my head what the problem I have with some people over codes of conduct boils down to, and now I have it.  A CoC is a tool.  How you enforce it is also a tool.  So is training your staff on this issue.  Like a lot of things, these can be multi-purpose tools.  In my case, as part of defining the problem I have with thing….it boils down to a question.


Are these tools supposed to be shields to try to protect your members from harm or are they supposed to be weapons to try to remove elements from the group?

Are these tools supposed to be shields to try to protect your members from harm or are they supposed to be weapons to try to remove elements from the group?  Now, I don’t mean to say that any CoC can be *only* a weapon or a shield.  I don’t believe that’s possible…there has to be some of both, but which state is the PREFERRED state?  Which state is the one that is driving your actions when you’re creating the CoC and training your staff and enforcing it?


I have a real problem when I come across people where it seems very clear from conversations or actions that they view the CoC as their weapon.  Weapons are made to get used and “when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”.  I have come across the phrase “weaponized Code of Conduct”, but that’s usually defined as the idea of an attendee gaming the system to use the CoC to effectively harass another attendee and it is not what I am speaking about here.  However that label, “weaponized Code of Conduct” is an appropriate one for what I am speaking about…I am just referencing it from strictly *inside* the organizing committee.


Now, what does it *look* like when a CoC is weaponized by the folks behind the scenes?  Well, I’ll pull a couple examples from recent memory for you…


Not so long ago, Bob(1)con did a bunch of work creating a CoC for themselves.  This was before the issue was vogue everywhere.   They didn’t have a lot of examples to mold themselves on, so I imagine most of what they chose to do came straight down to “it seemed like a good idea to us at the time”.  As part of that, what they did was create a Zero Tolerance policy for enforcement.  Violations of the CoC were to be met with permanent removal from the convention.  Whoever was handling any reported issue for Bob(1)con was not to have any discretion about the punishment…if someone needed to be punished, the punishment was they were gone for good.


If I may editorialize for a second?  Zero Tolerance is da debil!  It is only a tool of deterrence…which is the hallmark of a weapon.  “Don’t make me use this weapon on you!”


Expecting a different target, perhaps?

Expecting a different target, perhaps?

It didn’t take long for the weapon to blow up in everyone’s face.  They hit a scenario where the convention organizers were clear that there needed to be some punishment but the facts of the case made it look to them like permanent removal was entirely overkill.  But here they had this weapon and they were required to use it.  I could write a lot more about it, but it doesn’t matter; the story doesn’t end well for *anyone* involved.


As another example, there was a time a few years ago where Bob(2) brought a new CoC for their convention to a fairly public convention runner forum (presumably for review and input).  As with most CoCs, there was a lot there that was good but at least a few people had some push back on some of the policies.  One of the pieces of feedback about one or two specific policies was that they were worded in a way that made them overly broad…almost everyone attending Bob(3)con would be in violation of these sections of the CoC.


In response to the feedback, Bob(2) stated that they didn’t believe these parts of the CoC were problematic since the organizers knew who they would enforce them against.


Selective enforcement is *absolutely* a weapon and it’s a heinous one.  It’s one of the larger issues disenfranchised groups have in regular life…it’s one of the preferred tools of racism and sexism and I would *bet* almost any other “ism” folks can throw at me.


If we are going into something with the thought of “how do we safeguard our member’s enjoyment”, I find it exceedingly unlikely that we ever work our way to policies designed to be used against *specific* people or even *narrow* groups.


Easy, the dark side is!

Easy, the dark side is!

This is the soul of the issue on CoC issues for me.  Are we trying to protect or are we trying to remove.  Is this about preventing harm or seeking retribution?


I acknowledge that working towards protection will periodically make requirements to remove…but I don’t see how working towards removal offers all that much protection.  The mindset that we take going IN to addressing these issues will absolutely form the result we produce.  It is hard work to stay focused on being positive and protective.  It is much easier to design weapons than it is to design shields, but a CoC as a weapon is straight up Dark Side of the Force for me.  It leads directly to suffering and we all lose.

She Said…

That sharp intake of breath Dave heard?  Yeah, that was me.  However, he explained his idea, I thought it was interesting, and here we are.  I was supposed to have written my part of this yesterday but didn’t have time, and as it turns out, that’s a good thing.  Today I ran across a non-fannish example of what Dave is talking about with regards to a CoC, and it helped crystallize my perspective on it.


My real-life job is that of psychiatric social worker, and I currently work in administration at an urban academic medical center.  The social workers (SW) in one of my areas work closely with another department to provide patient care.  Now, I know that Worldcon org structures are complicated, but trust me when I say they’ve got nothin’ on an academic medical center.  In Worldcon lingo, I’m a Division Head.  Doc(1) is a Division Head.  Our divisions work closely together.  When my Area Head(1) has an issue with his Area Head(2), then AH(1) comes to me, and I go to Doc(1), and then me and him fight.  (By fight, I mean that we exchange some emails, meet in someone’s office, chat about what happened, come up with a plan, and then go back to our respective AHs to implement said plan, then periodically follow up to make sure the plan is working.)


I recently implemented a trial period of a new protocol for my SWs when it comes to patient care in this department.  It’s not the kind of protocol that has consequences laid out in it – it’s the kind of protocol that was developed to help our departments work together better and improve patient care.  In Dave’s lingo, it’s meant to be entirely a shield.  I never dreamt it would be possible to use it as a weapon.


Imagine my surprise when my new SW, Bob(5), tells me that last night she had Doc(2) yell at her in the middle of the department, with witnesses, because the doc thought Bob(5) was doing things wrong.  To make matters worse, this doc then printed out my protocol and passed it around to the other doctors, in front of Bob(5), saying “here, now this won’t happen again”.


Welcome to the full helping of "NOPE!"

Welcome to the full helping of “NOPE!”

It may not come as a surprise when I tell you that I am a ferocious mama bear when it comes to my social workers.  No Doc(2) who thinks that MD stands for Minor Deity is going to get away with publicly humiliating one of my team.  Nope.  Not even a little bit.  So when I met with Doc(1) this afternoon, the following statement came out of my mouth:


“This protocol was implemented to make patient care better, and to improve your department’s workflow.  None of your doctors have the right to weaponize this protocol and use it against my staff.”


This was a clear example of what Dave made mention of – how an attendee uses the CoC to game the system and harass another attendee.  In this case, Doc(2) took a shield and brought it down on Bob(5) to hurt and humiliate her.


Back in the fannish sphere, it’s important to realize that no matter what your intention is, and how much effort you put into making the CoC a shield for your members, there is always the chance it will be weaponized.  There are things that you can do to minimize this…but it takes a lot of work, training, and oversight.


We went in with the assumption that most of our attendees didn’t want to violate Wheaton’s Law.

About 10 years ago I was involved in writing the CoC for Bob(6)con.  The group decided early on that we didn’t want just an anti-harassment policy, because there were a lot of other behaviors that can make a convention less safe and less fun.  So we went with the broader CoC.  The intent is a shield – here’s how to act and not act so that everyone has a good time.  It’s a much longer version of Wheaton’s Law – don’t be a dick.  We went in with the assumption that most of our attendees didn’t want to violate Wheaton’s Law.  We incorporated what attendees should do if there are problems, starting with “try talking to them if you feel comfortable doing so” and we listed that consequences of violating the CoC included but were not limited to X, Y, and Z.  We recognized that behaviors and circumstances are made up of shades of gray, and we gave ourselves flexibility to work with that reality.


Fast forward to a recent Bob(6)con.  There’s a guy, Bob(7), who has become well-known in the larger community as being someone who has sexually harassed women.  At least one convention has banned him, albeit with much Sturm und Drang in the process.  He then shows up on our membership list.  He’s never been accused of causing any problems at Bob(6)con.  What’s a con to do?


I'm Responsible? Score!

I’m Responsible? Score!

As luck would have it, I was Board President at the time.  (Pardon me whilst I wipe away the sarcasm that just dripped from that sentence.)  There was much internal discussion, and ultimately we stood by what has been our stance from the beginning with our CoC – we do not pre-emptively ban people from Bob(6)con.


That said, we also took the stance that we have an obligation to try and shield our membership from unpleasantness – and that membership included Bob(7).


We arranged that registration would send Bob(7) to Ops upon arrival, and Ops would contact me and the conchair.  We came in, kicked out anyone who didn’t need to be there, shut the door, and explained our position.  We emphasized that we want everyone to be safe, including Bob(7).  We noted that we would be keeping an eye on him, in part due to concerns about his reputed behaviors, and in part to protect him – it’s not outside the realm of possibility that someone would decide to take matters into their own hands and start harassing him.  He wasn’t thrilled, but we remained at peace with our decision.  Happily, no problems were reported.


Our CoC is meant to be a shield for all our attendees so long as they don’t cause any trouble at Bob(6)con.  If they do, well, the consequences are there and we’ll cheerfully wield that weapon like the ferocious mama bears we can be.


I’m sure that there are many people who would disagree with our choices, and that’s cool.  There’s no absolute right way to set up a CoC.  You should set it up for what works for your convention and its membership.  You must consider what you want to accomplish with your CoC.  My hope is that the goal is always to safeguard your membership from unpleasantness and create an environment where everyone can have fun.  In doing so, keep in mind that you don’t want to have your CoC be the rigid oak tree that breaks when the storm comes.  Be the willow.  Be flexible.





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4 Responses to “The Shield or the Weapon”

  1. I really like the idea of approaching CoC and incident response as a shield rather than a weapon.
    That said, we do have a particular Bob(8) in California who is a known serial harasser and has been banned from at least 6 different conventions at this point. One of them followed a protocol very similar to what you described for Bob(6)con (warn and observe) and Bob(8) still misbehaved egregiously enough that they then banned him. Bob(8) is now preemptively banned from any convention I help run, but it is definitely to shield the rest of the members from a repeatedly demonstrated risk rather than attack Bob(8).

    Posted by kproche | November 3, 2016, 7:47 pm
  2. well, the first thing I want to say is, a shield can be a weapon, just as a sword can be used as a shield (to parry), so the distinction may be more apt than intended because a CoC should actually fill both roles.

    I’ve written a lot of rules systems over the years and I’ve learned a few good lessons in doing so:
    1. all rules must have three characteristics: they must be definable, they must be measurable and they must be enforceable. For example – Player out of bounds – definable as the player exiting the defined playing area; measurable using previously delineated measures, such as a drawn boundary. Enforceable – referees assess the penalty (play doesn’t count).
    2. Enforceability should be further determined by its consequences under the WORST CASE scenario. For example: whatever the penalty for harassment may be – is the convention committee willing to enforce it against their high profile guest of honor? Against a person funding the event? Against someone who can engage in effective retribution?
    3. In any rules system, there must be enough built-in leeway to allow enforcers to apply the rules, even in ambiguous situations. For example: a very detailed set of sports rules did not include a specific penalty for the (bad) actions of a player. But the rules system DID have a penalty for “unsportsmanlike conduct” – which carried a deliberately open-ended definition (…”deliberately interferes with game play, interferes with officials ability to conduct operations, results in an unsafe environment for other players, officials, spectators…”); judges determined that the actions in question could be considered unsportsmanlike and handed out multiple penalties, one for each individual act of “unsportsmanlike conduct”.

    CoCs need to be legal; they need to meet the basic requirements for rules, but they also need to be interpreted and applied by individuals who are experienced and capable of doing so, as conventions and attendees are not chess pieces, subject to hard and fast, easily definable rules.

    I suggest a blanket statement at the beginning of such things that clearly states that ANY activity that takes place at a con that, in the opinion of the committee is detrimental to the operation of the convention, can be grounds for removal from the convention, whether it is proven or not and that any appeals to rulings will not be entertained until after the convention has concluded.

    In so far as the “person of interest” planning on attending; send them a note disinviting them. Don’t let one “customer” ruin the convention for multiple other customers. Does their presence cause the committee to devote resources it othewise wouldn’t have? Does it make some other attendees uncomfortable? That’s “unsportsmanlike conduct” and grounds for enforcing a penalty.

    Posted by Steve Davidson | November 4, 2016, 5:21 pm


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