ReaderCon — a convention in Cambridge, Massachusetts centered around readers and authors and how great books are — has recently found itself in the center of a bit of a storm involving harassment of one of its attendees. The results and their response are… disappointing, to say the least. Which I won’t. Say the least, that is. I’m going to say a fair bit.
So let’s start with a summary of what happened, in case this is the first you’ve heard about it.
ReaderCon has a stated Zero Tolerance policy when it comes to harassment:
Readercon has always had a zero-tolerance harassment policy.
Harassment of any kind — including physical assault, battery, deliberate intimidation, stalking, or unwelcome physical attentions — will not be tolerated at Readercon and will result in permanent suspension of membership.
As always, Readercon reserves the right to strip membership at its discretion.
Ponder what zero-tolerance means. Keep it at the forefront of your thoughts.
The story first broke on Genevieve Valentine’s blog, when she wrote about what happened to her:
My boundaries were violated physically, verbally, and in terms of my right to feel personally secure. In addition, within minutes of meeting him, I was told to stop saying things, because it made him somehow unable to control his thoughts, which is bog-standard thought policing. And I was subjected to not one, not two, but THREE instances of the man in question hovering near me because he wanted to apologize, and he wasn’t going to stop until he had had his say.
At ReaderCon, Valentine felt threatened. This man subjected Valentine to not only the initial harassment (telling her to stop making him have “bad thoughts”?! ew), but then continued the harassment because he felt bad and it was important he be forgiven. His feelings about being heard and being forgiven mattered more than her feelings about wanting to be safe.
Hang on to that. That feelings thing. That’s a theme here.
In this instance, she was able to go to the ReaderCon board and lodge a formal complaint, with corroborating witnesses. This is a process she is not unfamiliar with. In 2008, Veronica Schanoes found herself in a similar situation, being harassed by another con-goer, and Valentine encouraged her to come forward and acted as a witness.
Schanoes’ situation was, from what I have read, well-handled. Investigation happend, witness statements taken, and in the face of undeniable evidence, the ReaderCon board ruled in a way that was in line with their policy. Aaron Agassi was banned from ReaderCon for life.
It’s later been mentioned that Agassi has some form of mental illness (I’ve heard several different illnesses described, and I’m not sure which might be true). He is also not particularly known in the fandom. I say these things because these things are important.
Return to present day. Valentine has lodged her complaint. Several witnesses have come forward. We have arrived at the point where there is incontrovertible proof that Valentine was being harassed by a man named Rene Walling. He is apparently a chair member of WorldCon, and is something of a BNF.
The ReaderCon board has banned Rene Walling. For two years.
How interesting. Aaron Agassi, unknown person and mentally ill, is banned for life. Rene Walling, secret master of fandom, gets a slap on the wrist.
I’m not saying, I’m just saying.
There’s a very obvious problem here, and it goes beyond what looks to be, on the surface, favoritism and politics as usual in the SFF fandom. It is that ReaderCon has gone on record claiming a zero-tolerance policy, and then have shown they cannot keep to their word. This means that anybody at the convention who once felt safe is no longer able to feel that way. This also means that if you have enough sway in fandom, you can get away with it.
The verdict drew a lot of ire from the Internet. I mean, a lot. To the point where the ReaderCon board finally felt the need to announce the decision on their own terms, and explain the reasoning behind it.
Hang on to your hats, folks.
During the course of our conversation with Rene it became immediately apparent that he realized what he had done and was sincerely regretful of his actions. It was that recognition and regret that influenced our decision, not his status in the community.
Remember that thing I said earlier? About feelings? About it being a theme?
Feelings matter, you see. Specifically, Walling’s feelings matter. Not Valentine’s, though. Well, a little, maybe. I mean, Walling is going to miss two years of ReaderCon. So her feelings matter enough for that.
Valentine feels threatened, unsafe. Walling feels sowwies. There is no question whether or not a crime happened: it did. The board has acknowledged it. But they have gone around their own stated policy and ignored the reality of what has happened because Walling feels bad.
So, hang on, I guess a couple things are happening here.
One: Walling’s feelings matter more than Valentine’s. This is a clear, unequivocal message the ReaderCon board is sending. An attacker’s feelings matter more than the victim’s. This means ReaderCon is no longer a safe space, and apparently never was.
Two: ReaderCon had a posted Zero-Tolerance policy on harassment that was kind of a shiny thing that a lot of people held up as an awesome example of how cons should handle harassment. Then they went and pulled this shit. Once again, no longer a safe space, never was to begin with.
Three: Men with power get away with crimes because reasons. This is a thing that happens, and fandom suffers from it too. Great job, guys.
Four: This is kind of Harasser 101 shit here. Walling was sorry? Of course he was sorry. But was he sorry for what he did, or sorry he was caught? Most harassers/attackers are able to express remorse, sincere or otherwise, and yet they continue to commit the same crimes. And when there is no real punishment, there is no incentive to change their behaviour.
Five: Okay some people out there are claiming that oh what if he’s Aspie and doesn’t know any better which is such bullshit and I’ll let Rose Lemberg tell you why because she nailed it.
This all… I just…
It’s kind of disgusting, what happened here. Women were harassed. The harassment was found to be a real and valid thing. And yet, the perpetrator gets away with it, with just a slap on the wrist, circumventing stated zero-tolerance policies. Making that zero-tolerance policy worth less than the paper it was printed on. And I don’t know that anybody ever printed it out.
I’ve never been to ReaderCon, but I’d heard stories of how great it is, and I figured it was a fun and happy place worth going to. Apparently not. Unless something changes, I’m likely to never go to ReaderCon. And many others have stated the same.
Honestly, I don’t even know what action the ReaderCon board can take at this point to make it all right. There is currently a letter/petition to the ReaderCon board suggesting corrective action, written by Schanoes and undersigned by many others. But, I don’t know, reverting their decision and perma-banning Walling feels like that same tune of bowing to pressure; instead of pressure from a BNF’s reputation and his fauxpology, now it’s pressure from the Internet. If ReaderCon were to take these corrective steps, would it be true change, or would it simply be second verse, same as the first? Would they understand what they had done, or would they simply be sowwies? I’m not sure.
Regardless, ReaderCon has fucked up pretty badly. Let’s see if they can recover. I feel like they will have a hard time with it.
ETA: It appears that Rene Walling’s name is being removed from the Kansas City World Con bid comittee.
ETA 2, The Editing
The entire board is stepping down, and the perpetrator has been banned. I must say, I’m incredibly surprised, and impressed with this response. It is an even and unequivocal apology for what has happened. Read the official ReaderCon statement here.