That Which Divides by Christopher Nuttall
A house divided against itself cannot stand.
One does not join a community by loudly and obnoxiously demanding entrance. One joins by sharing the community’s goals and working with others to achieve them.
I was actually planning something along the lines of this essay before the kerfuffle over the Google Memo hit the internet, for reasons I will explain shortly. And while this essay isn’t primarily about the memo – it has more to do with fandom and diversity in general – it does touch on some very important points.
Last weekend, my wife, son and I attended the Nine Worlds Geekfest in London. For me, it was a chance to meet up with some of my publishers and friends, as well as buying a considerable number of books. And I came away from the convention with curiously mixed feelings.
Nine Worlds talked – a lot – about inclusivity and diversity. And I am all in favour of making conventions as accessible as possible. A fan in a wheelchair is still a fan and a decently-run convention will make provisions for that fan to attend panels or visit the vendors, insofar as it is reasonably possible. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling – as I read the anti-harassment policy and studied the ‘chosen pronoun’ badges – that they might have gone a little too far. Indeed, some of their policies struck me as ones that could be easily abused by bad actors.
I was particularly dismayed to note that the ‘bathroom wars’ in the US had spread to London, with the most accessible toilets on the vendor’s floor designated as ‘gender-neutral.’ People were specifically warned not to question people using the toilets, whatever gender they appeared to be. Fans who wanted to use a specifically male or female toilet had to go up or down a level, something that might have caused problems for disabled fans. These toilets were not designed to be gender-neutral and the prospects for everything from accidental flashing to outright sexual harassment were evidently not taken into account. My wife – who comes from a very conservative country – stated that she would not be comfortable using a mixed toilet and I find it hard to believe she was the only one. Furthermore, it would be difficult for someone who was being sexually harassed to use such a toilet to escape their harasser. Who has the liability then?
A further oddity was a stall being devoted to a bookseller that specialised in LGBT books aimed at young children, placed in the main vendors hall (while at least one small press and a gaming workshop was placed on the second floor, out of sight). While I did pick up a copy of Interstellar Cinderella for my niece, I do question the selection of that particular bookseller instead of another SF/Fantasy publisher. (I actually assumed that the con hadn’t had many applicants from publishers or booksellers, but this was apparently incorrect.) Why was this bookseller chosen when its links to fandom are very limited?
At this point, I’m sure a few readers are wondering what’s my point. Indulge me for a moment longer.
The problem with ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ programs – however well-intentioned – is that they call attention to differences, rather than celebrating what we have in common. I don’t care if the person sitting next to me at a panel is male or female, black or white, straight or gay or bi or transgender or whatever. It makes no difference to me. Why should it? As a fan, I should not discourage anyone from fandom. Saying ‘you can’t join our club because you’re a [whatever]’ is both cruel and stupid.
But, like it or not, humans draw lines between groups of people. It’s how we’re wired, like it or not. And the more people talk about differences between groups of people, the easier it becomes to fall into the trap of dislike, distrust, suspicion and even outright hated. Worse, as I have discussed earlier, the bad actors in a particular group will be used to characterise the rest of that group. This is not fair, but it will happen. Humans are more inclined to remember the bad than the good.
It is neither fair nor right to deny someone the chance to visit a convention or join a club because they are [insert inherent attribute here]. But one might reasonably ask just how far a convention or a club should move away from its base to accommodate them, particularly when doing so runs the risk of alienating older fans.
The Google Memo is neither a screed – despite some media outlets insisting that it is – nor is it particularly well-written. But it does call attention to a problem within Google – the belief, justified or not, that corporate managers are putting social justice causes ahead of practicality and meritocracy. The fact that some outlets state that nearly a third of Google’s employees – or at least the ones surveyed – agree with the memo suggests that this is not an uncommon belief. Indeed, given the simple fact that very few people believe that ‘confidential’ responses remain confidential in a corporate environment, it is quite possible that the total number of employees who agree is actually much higher. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, after 2016. Trump’s victory surprised the pollsters because, at least in part, people were reluctant to come out and say they were going to vote for Donald Trump. The social cost was too high.
And while I cannot prove it, I would bet good money that most of the employees who agreed with the memo work in the ‘hard science’ departments.
Google has, in many ways, the same problem as many other institutions, from the media to the military. The people who make policy are divorced from the realities of life on the sharp end (or shop floor or whatever.) Worse, the number of ‘core’ workers is actually quite small, relative to the overall workforce. The policy-makers can therefore blabber endlessly about diversity and social justice, while the people who do the actual work grow increasingly frustrated because their jobs are being made harder. A computer doesn’t care if the person writing the program is male or female. It does care about their code actually running smoothly, once it is uploaded. And the ‘core’ workers know this because it is their life.
The suspicion that people are hired and promoted for anything but demonstrated competence is poisonous. If it is not actually true, employees will still act on the assumption that it is true; if it is true, the good employees will not put forward their best because they will believe, rightly, that there’s no hope of rising up the ladder either. Google may or may not have been within its legal rights to fire the memo-writer, but firing him does not inspire confidence in upper management. There was not (so far) any solid attempt to prove the memo-writer wrong. Instead, the writer was punished for daring to offer an opinion that went against the grain.
People – particularly men – respect demonstrated competence. A person with a solid track record will not inspire too much resentment, regardless of his skin colour (etc, etc), when he is promoted. But a person who does not do good work – particularly someone who creates extra work for his workmates – will be widely disliked. And if he gets promoted, it will not be long before the muttering starts or employees start looking for new jobs. People who know their own worth very well – and people with solid track records do – are not the sort of people who will willingly stick around when they feel disrespected and/or that upper management is intent on ruining its own business.
The average fan, I think, does not care about the ethnic, racial, sexual, religious or whatever makeup of fandom. Why should he?
But, at the same time, he doesn’t want fandom to change to the point it becomes unrecognisable. We are not forced to be science-fiction and fantasy fans. We are fans because we love it! We want to read books and see movies and chat endlessly about tiny details that baffle outside observers. We don’t want to be lectured, we don’t want to be told that we’re horrible people, we don’t want to have our faces constantly rubbed in the fact that people who had nothing to do with us were awful, once upon a time, to people who also had nothing to do with us.
We are happy – more than happy – to include people who want to join. But why would we want people who want to divide and change us?
And why would they want to join?