Monday, April 30, 2012

On geek social fallacies, and the reason that they make it hard to call out inappropriate behavior at the poetry slam - by Lisa Slater

During the preparation for the Van Slam meeting where we raised the issue of safe space and sexual assault (and folks shared their stories of inappropriate behavior that they’ve encountered at the poetry slam), one of the things that our badass facilitator Tara Hardy remarked on was how our community had pretzeled itself around such a dysfunctional person.

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about this. As Jess mentioned in her story, I had spent an extensive amount of time with the man who assaulted her. I have seen him cross boundaries, yell at people, refuse to leave someone’s house when he was no longer welcome, and many other anti-social and inappropriate behaviors. As a part of my commitment to creating safe space, I had to re-examine my unwillingness to confront him on his other inappropriate behaviors. Why hadn’t I put my foot down?

In doing some reading about parallel struggles against sexual assault in the BDSM/fetish community, I clicked on a link to an article about geek social fallacies, and I found the answer.

The geek social fallacies as described are mostly used to describe folks who are gamers, comic book geeks, etc – however, I think that they apply to almost any marginalized subculture. Many of the people who spend a lot of time within the poetry slam community have trauma, social anxiety, or other issues that isolate us from broader society. I think that, for many of us, writing and performing gives us an opportunity to work through our ‘stuff’ and to be celebrated for being original and different. It’s a place where the fat kids, the survivors, the queer and trans folk and the nerds can come together and be accepted.
However, in our quest to accept and celebrate people who are different, we sometimes veer towards geek social fallacy #1 (GSF1) – ostracizers are evil. As Michael Suileabhain-Wilson writes:
Many geeks have had horrible, humiliating, and formative experiences with ostracism, and the notion of being on the other side of the transaction is repugnant to them…As a result, nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate. If GSF1 exists in sufficient concentration -- and it usually does -- it is impossible to expel a person who actively detracts from every social event. 
In examining my interactions with this man, I realized that I was permissive regarding his obnoxious and anti-social behavior because I believed that he didn’t have anywhere else to go, and that it would be cruel to try to forcibly exclude him from the community. And it doesn’t just apply to him. I can think of loads of situations where I didn’t put my foot down because I didn’t want to be the person who shuts someone out of the only accepting place they’ve ever known.

Some examples of shitty behavior that I didn’t call out include:
-       A poet wrote an extremely graphic fantasy sex poem, which originated in a real conversation that he had with another poet in the scene. He performed it at the slam, and then proceeded to tell the person it was about that it was about her. She expressed that it made her very uncomfortable and asked him not to perform it again. He refused.
-       A poet and organizer in his late 20s slept with an 18 year old volunteer at the poetry slam, and then wouldn’t return her phone calls and gave her the silent treatment.
-       A poet and organizer criticized another organizer’s professional judgment behind her back because he felt that she demonstrated poor sexual judgment in her personal life.

In all of these situations, the reason that I didn’t call out this behavior is because I felt like I would be cutting them out of a group that they love. I am keenly aware of the social power I wield. I have quite a bit of social capital, and I know that being called out by me is a serious strike against someone. I have been unwilling to wield it, even in situations where it was more than warranted. One of the pieces of growth that I am working on is around holding people accountable for behaving in responsible and respectful ways.

I think it’s time for us to all take a hard look at how we behave in community, and ask ourselves: where are the places that we struggle with holding people accountable and calling them out for inappropriate behavior?

I believe that this commitment to calling out will make our communities safer. I want that. I hope you will join me.


  1. In the examples of shitty behaviour you mention an organizer in their late 20's sleeping with an 18 year old and not calling them back and ignoring them afterwards.

    I'm wondering what part of this is the responsibility of people outside of this relationship to call out at all.

    Unless it wasn't a consensual experience then how is it anyone else's business? Two people of adult status apparently engaging in consensual sex.

    I agree that ignoring someone afterwards is not very nice and feelings were probably hurt but they are grown ups and have to deal with it themselves.

    So, in all seriousness why would something like that be needed to be called out? Are you uncomfortable with the age difference? Or that one of the people is/was an organizer in the community?

    Or perhaps I am misinterpreting what you mean by being "called out." Are you just saying you would have preferred to confront this person in private and discuss it with them and say as a friend, I think you're being a jerk or do you mean to publicize it for the community to know about?

    In some ways it sounds like what's being suggested is like example three...criticizing someone for what you consider poor sexual judgement, IMO.

    Just trying to navigate the dynamics.



  2. You said in your post, "I am keenly aware of the social power I wield. I have quite a bit of social capital, and I know that being called out by me is a serious strike against someone. I have been unwilling to wield it, even in situations where it was more than warranted. One of the pieces of growth that I am working on is around holding people accountable for behaving in responsible and respectful ways."

    I suggest that you might want to start examining exactly how and by what means you are holding yourself accountable for behaving in responsible, respectful and sensitive ways towards others in the poetry slam community when you make thinly veiled posts identifying behaviour which you may not personally like but which is really none of your business, and which other people may completely disagree with. I'm afraid you are not the last word on what is acceptable or not, or what is moral or not. Quite frankly I find your sanctimonious tone fairly annoying, if not rather 'matroninizing'.

  3. Hey RC - good questions. Thanks for asking.

    In not wanting to post identifying details, I left out some of the more concerning pieces in the situation you refer to. However, I do think your question about 'what makes it any of our business' is interesting. If two random people at the poetry slam have consensual sex - you're absolutely right. None of our business, age difference or not.

    The piece where I get a bit sticky is around a community leader ignoring a volunteer and refusing to speak to them. That's just unprofessional. I'm certainly not saying that poets and organizers can't sleep with other folks from the scene. The place where I find it an issue is where a volunteer tries to fulfill their volunteer duties by liaising with a senior volunteer, or they turn up to work a show, and the person who they should be working with refuses to acknowledge their existence. And if I was that volunteer, I would feel uncomfortable ever coming back to the poetry slam.

    We talked in the meeting that Tara Hardy hosted about the 'fresh meat' phenomenon that many of the young, single women in our community experienced. It was a turnoff from them coming to the poetry slam. Many (most? all?) of these women were not assaulted - but the fact that they felt uncomfortable and didn't return is a larger cultural issue.

    No laws were broken. No one should have been banned, or censured. But on a personal level, I feel like I should have said "hey - have you thought about the ways in which this might be affecting folks, and how it might be perceived more broadly in the community?" Or, RC, as you suggest - I could pull someone aside personally and say "I think you're behaving really unprofessionally. If you can't work with this person, delegate." (For the record - this particular example wasn't from Vancouver. But I think it illustrates a larger point.)

    I think that when we freeze people out as a result of who they have or haven't slept with, that is a signal of a bad culture.

    As I mentioned in my post, one of the things that I am struggling with at the moment is that I watched women leave the community after being aggressively hit on, groped, or intimidated by Jess' perpetrator. I am trying to understand why I didn't step in sooner. There was lots of unacceptable behavior. It would have been appropriate for me to set a boundary and hold it. I didn't. Why is that?

    RC, I hope that clarifies things, and answers your question. If not, I'm happy to chat more.

    Thanks for engaging.


  4. Hey, anonymous blog commenter! Thanks for chiming in!

    I definitely agree with you that it is important for those who have privilege to be extremely careful and conscious about how they wield it. Part of the reason that I wrote the paragraph that you quoted is because I think that it is critical for people with privilege (including myself) to be aware of the power that they bring to every situation, room, and blog post.

    You say that my posts are 'thinly veiled'. I have tried to be as vague as possible while still engaging with the underlying themes. I don't know who you are, anonymous blog commenter, but it sounds like you are feeling called out. I should let you know that it is tremendously unlikely that these examples are about you, unless I have had a reasonably recent conversation with you about my concerns.

    If you recognize yourself in them, however, I hope that you will step back from the angry-anonymous-commenting and think about the fact that there has been a lot of inappropriate shit that has been going on and people felt that it was "none of their business" to call it out.

    The 'behavior that I don't like' is behavior that makes people feel marginalized and unwelcome as a result of who they are or aren't sleeping with. Behavior that makes them feel objectified and that doesn't respect their personhood. You and I might have different opinions on where that line should be drawn, anonymous blog commenter, but if you're reading this blog you are probably aware that there is a problem, and it is not about one assault, or two assaults.

    It is about a culture in which dozens of assaults have taken place in the last five years because we have created an environment where we don't call people out for behavior that occurs earlier on the spectrum. And much of this behavior is done by people who are ultimately good folks. But some of it is done by people who are predators testing boundaries. And when we don't step in and call it out (wherever we each personally draw the lines about where it's appropriate for us to pull someone aside and say "hey friend - not cool"), we are allowing bad behavior to escalate.

    I can't judge other people's morality, but I do care about safety. I care about people exercising their power and privilege in ways that are conscious and respectful. And I care about each of us in this community striving to treat each other with dignity. That's where safe space begins, I think.

    If you ever feel like talking screen name to screen name, anonymous blog commenter, I am happy to have a conversation. I've still got lots to learn, and I appreciate the opportunity to examine myself and my motives more closely, and course correct as needed.


  5. Your last post is filled with baseless assumptions about human behaviour, cause and effect, and filled with subterranean anger and axes to grind about your personal past pain and issues, that you believe through seeking to become the superwoman that polices everyone else's conduct you will be redeemed. Well, I have a suggestion for you, get your head out of your ass and you will realize that basically you are advocating bullying cloaked in very pc language, with no safeguards for those who may become your next target. God forbid, you or someone you care about should ever be wrongly "called out"....what would you do then?

  6. Thanks, Lisa

    I agree that we don't want or need behaviour that makes people attending the slam as audience, volunteer or performer that makes them not want to attend. That doesn't help anybody.

    I think we also have to figure where "being uncomfortable" and "feeling unsafe" merge. In my mind there's a big difference. If you (general you) sleep with someone in the scene and then the next morning you are thinking it was not the best decision, you might feel uncomfortable around that person for a little while but not threatened..just embarassed.

    I still think that that is private territory.

    When anyone starts feeling like they can't be at a slam or other poetry event because they might bump into someone they feel threatened by then I think that's when we as a scene need to step in.

    And of course we need to create a space where all sides feel safe discussing it and coming forward when something untoward has been done.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    As to "anonymous" I get the sense that you're pissed off about something but to move forward I think it would be helpful if you were more constructive with your criticisms than just saying "get your head out of your ass."

    You might have some good points but throwing out those sorts of barbs is not a good way to get people to listen to you.

    Just a suggestion.

    It would also be cool not to hide...


  7. My identity is not at all relevant to this discussion. The issues are and anyone reading this blog knows that. You get the sense I am pissed off? I wonder why? Could it be that in Lisa's previous post she tries to diminish my value by needlessly and repeatedly addressing me in a mocking fashion as "anonymous blog commenter"? Gee, I wonder? Mocking someone a blog? Lisa would never do anything like that...would she? She supposedly wields so much power and is so respectful of goodness....I'm not sure how I will feel when I see her at the next slam...I will say this, I am not the only person who is angry/irritated/disagrees with her comments above.

  8. How else should she address you? Unless you reveal your identity "anonymous blog poster" seems accurate and not pejorative at all.

  9. It's the repetition and overall tone that makes it mocking. Reread her original response and you may see it in a different way or not. She or anyone can address me as ABC from now on.



  11. Thank you for your thoughts so far, they are valued. That being said, insisting that the people here not speak up during an ad hominem attack on someone's character, all while insisting that there are multiple invisible people that are also adamantly driven against her, is a move to isolate and attack. I haven't actually heard an issue raised here at all, only a deconstruction of someone's personality. All discussion regarding the sustainability and fairness of ideas is quite welcome; but I cannot patronize or entertain declarations on someone's character as a silencing initiative. I wouldn't brook that against someone with whom I vehemently disagreed with or disliked.

    That being said, I for one patiently wait for any words regarding the ideas proposed in this blog, rather than the umbrage and vitriol expressed against any one person's alleged character. That I will entertain. Can you appreciate the important difference?

  12. Kyle, I think it's time for you to remove your head from your ass as well and realize that Lisa is neither God nor the Prime Minister of Canada and that my response was a result of her mocking me and trying to put me down, and on another thread on this blog trying to isolate me by suggesting I speak to her privately. As for deconstructioning her personality goes, if that is what it takes to get her to understand that her past traumas involving older men when she was younger may be causing her to overreach or project her code of morality onto others unfairly then that is not a bad thing....Anyway, let's try to stick to the issues, one of which I did bring up but perhaps you didn't notice.

    Here are two of many examples:

    By whom or by what mechanism will it be decided what constitutes unacceptable behaviour?

    What procedures will be put in place to ensure that people accused of unacceptable behaviour have an opportunity to present their version, lest they be falsely accused?


  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Well friend, you're not doing yourself any favours with your approach, nor adding any credence to your concerns with accountability-dodging anonymity for your random conspiracy theories, but I will tell you that if you still think this initiative represents judicial-style accusations, you're deliberately not paying attention. Try again tomorrow when you've calmed down. Goodnight.

  16. My anonymity protects me form Lisa retaliating against me for disagreeing with her given her tremendous social capital. Thank you for your ad hominem attack and dear lord, the whole problem with the initiative is that it is completely injudicious! Hello!

  17. PS. What happened to the comment I posted last night? Are my comments now being censored? What's the policy on that?

  18. As I posted last night, in a post that has been summarily removed by Kyle, a more complete explanation for anonymous posting can be found at the website of the Electronic Frontier Foundation at the following link:

  19. For the record: I am not engaging in any censorship of these discussions, nor, do I suspect, is anyone else.

    In a way, I've decided that anonymity on the Internet is both a good and a bad thing. It gives people the entitlement to say horrible things without any accountability, weaponized words meant to hurt more than to communicate. The reason this is a good thing is because it shatters the magesterium of class privilege and rape culture: when people (mostly white men) don't have faces, they often become worse versions of themselves; and we no longer have to convince others that rape culture and male privilege are phenomena that exist in some fringe.

    Here we have a re-iteration of the spectral hypothetical that if we don't re-instate the culture of silence and immediately stop talking about safe space, we will inevitably create an Orwellian hell in the Vancouver Poetry Slam, and that there will be some sort of matriarchal oligarchy of overlords sitting on drumheads giving out blacklists to men who dare to say hello to a female.

    I'm sorry, my patience for this hypothetical wears thin.

  20. You didn't just say, "Here we have a re-iteration of the spectral hypothetical that if we don't re-instate the culture of silence and immediately stop talking about safe space, we will inevitably create an Orwellian hell in the Vancouver Poetry Slam, and that there will be some sort of matriarchal oligarchy of overlords sitting on drumheads giving out blacklists to men who dare to say hello to a female. " ? Did you? Has what I have written really point to a demand for a "culture of silence and immediately stop talking about safe space"? "blacklists to men who dare to say hello to a female. "? Seriously, is that what I seem to be concerned with? REREAD THE ORIGINAL POSTS, DO SOME THINKING, READ A BOOK OR TWO, EDUCATE YOURSELF.

    PS One of your group is in fact censoring/deleting my posts, friend.....I assumed it was you since we were in conversation but I guess it was anonymously done by someone else....

  21. I will also say that for such loving and caring people, the amazing lack of concern you and Lisa have for the people that Lisa accused of behaving shittily in her original post is astonishing. You should both be ashamed of yourselves.

  22. Kyle and Lisa, read this:

  23. I have only seen this thread in it's entirety now and have a couple of points of clarification:

    1. In the side bar it states clearly that all comments are not moderated. I am the only person who can delete other peoples comments and I haven't and won't be doing that. If you are interested in why I will gladly send you an essay I once wrote on the topic of minimal online moderation. (MOM for short)

    2. Be nice. The subject matter we're dealing with here is incredibly sensitive and there is little to help us navigate this territory without mistake or fuck ups. So, lets be kind to each other.

    3. Lisa your post is eye opening and has helped me see some of the social dynamics in a new light. Thank you.