When a convention or conference chooses its Guests of Honor, the conrunners are making an inherently political choice.
They are giving that person a platform and a microphone. They are, in most cases, giving that person money, if not a direct honorarium, then in-kind, in the form of travel arrangements, hotel, and other expenses.
They are also sending a signal to potential attendees about whose voices they care about — who they value, who they want to promote and endorse — and thus, who will be welcome at their event. Who they’re reaching out to. Who they want to see and interact with.
My favorite conference, Sirens, always chose its guests very carefully. They cared about inclusion and about giving the mic to guests whose diversity and intersectionality — of race, of gender, of sexuality, of disability, of body type, of socioeconomic background, of nationality, of religion — represented the magnificent spectrum of the field of speculative fiction. They included academics as well as the “big draw” authors; they chose people whose words and work had made a positive impact on the community. They chose people whose views might challenge those of us in the audience to do better, be better, challenge ourselves more, to consider life experiences outside our own, to think about the things our own life experiences might have insulated us from. I was ever grateful for it.
A lot of cons aren’t as intentional about their choices, particularly the small, regional, fan-run cons. They often choose people they know, and thus people they know will say yes, with the result that the GOH pages end up looking pretty similar year-to-year, and con-to-con within a region. More effort should certainly be spent to do better, to look outside a con’s familiar bounds, to prioritize reaching out to the communities that are less likely to have platforms offered to them, and thus to welcome new members into the experience — but those cons are not, I think, making their choices out of malice, rather out of inertia.
And then there are the cons that make very deliberate, very intentional choices in the opposite direction.
Yes, this is about MarsCon.
MarsCon is one of my local Virginia cons, and they made a Whole Choice recently. I’m not going to use the name of the GOH who is the center and originator of the maelstrom, because this post really isn’t about him, but you can read up on it here.
The short version is that MarsCon, like last year’s FenCon, chose a GOH best known outside of his own circle for leading a campaign against the recognition of the contribution of marginalized voices in SFF and for being a bully employing classic DARVO techniques whenever anyone voices disapproval of said campaign.
I certainly would have no idea who he was if not for those two things, nor, I suspect, would most of the SFF folk of my acquaintance. He belongs to a sub-genre that has no interest for me and very little overlap with the readers and writers I hang with. Which… fine, in and of itself. He can have his personal politics all he wants. But he chose to make his personal politics everyone else’s problem, which is why a MarsCon regular guest very mildly voiced a concern, on FB, over whether or not he was the right choice for a con that claimed to want to be inclusive.
This GOH, and others like him, do not respond well to such statements. When they hear “Some people choose not to be around you because they find you unpleasant,” they perceive it as an attack, and they determine that a rabidly vitriolic response is not only warranted but necessary. (Again, DARVO).
The GOH wasted no time, it seems, in calling in his flying monkeys to harass the person who voiced concern, swiftly turning the FB threads into an unqualified shitshow. MarsCon responded by shutting down all comments and, rather than addressing the concerns that had just been proved entirely valid, doubling-down on their support for their aggressive GOH.
A whole choice.
MarsCon then made the choice to post a new “Interim Online Policy” claiming that “MarsCon is as it has always been an apolitical Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. It is the firm stance of MarsCon that personal politics should be left outside of the convention. It will not allow itself to used as a place for anyone to try and forward their personal political views.”
There’s more to the statement and the word “political” is doing some heavy lifting throughout.
For one, speculative fiction is inherently political, as are the people who create and consume it, and it’s entirely disingenuous to pretend otherwise. The only people who want to pretend otherwise are those who have the privilege and luxury of pretending that politics don’t matter, because their own lives are sufficiently insulated from its effects, and whose feelings get hurt when you point that out.
For another, no one that I saw was attacking the GOH’s politics, but rather his well-established history and ongoing practice of being a bully about them.
For a third, MarsCon’s definition of “political” seems to be “anything that we disagree with or that criticizes our choices”.
There’s something particularly craven about conrunners that choose an infamous GOH best known for his politically-motivated aggression towards others and then try to claim that all they want is apolitical civility.
The conrunners set a fire and then wept about how unfair it was when others commented that they smelled smoke.
When they say “leave politics at the door,” what they mean is “your politics must be left at the door; ours will define the tone and tenor of the convention.” And that’s their right — but they shouldn’t try to weasel out of accountability for it.
This post is, truly, not about the GOH himself. As I said, I’d have no idea who he was if he didn’t make himself a nuisance within larger SFF spheres, and I’d be happy to go back to forgetting he exists. This post is about the choices that conrunners make and the effects those choices have on attendees.
Many of the commenters supporting this GOH did what I’ve seen them do at other cons with other, similar GOHs in the past. “Just ignore him.” “Don’t go to his panels, then.” “You can avoid him.” “Just go and enjoy yourself, you probably won’t even notice.”
This places the burden upon the harmed rather than the one doing the harm.
I cannot enjoy a convention if, every time I enter a room, I’m wondering who in there is a potential threat to me. Who doesn’t want me there because I’m female, queer, pagan. Who doesn’t want my friends there because they’re people of color, or trans or nonbinary, or disabled, or anything else they see as not really part of the SFF community, as they would define it.
It’s not just the GOH. For one thing, he is not unique. There are others who operate with the same methods and have faced similar criticisms. So it’s not just him, and it’s not just them. It’s the flying monkeys they bring with them. It’s the tone of the convention. It’s the toxic atmosphere thus created. It’s how the presence of someone with an exclusionary attitude affects other congoers.
I’m lucky. I have other options for congoing. I have money enough to travel. Sometimes I even get invited to do so at someone else’s expense.
But for lots of SFF fans, their small, local, fan-run con might be their only opportunity to attend a convention, to gather with other geeks, to hear from the authors they admire. My heart breaks for those in Virginia who will either lose that opportunity because of MarsCon’s choices, or who will attend, perhaps not knowing what toxicity they’re stepping into or deciding the risk is worth braving it, and who will then be fending off an onslaught of aggressions, both micro and overt, all weekend.
Tragically, MarsCon will probably survive this just fine. What they lose in those of us who don’t want to enter a toxic environment, they’ll likely gain in the GOH’s flying monkeys. Certainly enough of them are crowing about it, about how brave MarsCon is to stand up to the woke mob. About how great this will be, and all cons should take a similar stand, for the sake of civility, because these snowflakes complaining are so intolerant.
I really rather want to shove an explanation of the paradox of tolerance under all their noses.
Honestly, though, it isn’t a surprise. It’s a culmination of what should have been apparent about this particular con a while ago.
I’ve attended a few times, but not in the past couple of years — not so much because of their covid policies themselves as because of the explanation I was given when I (privately) asked what protection measures they were planning for the 2022 convention. Not much, I was told, because if they required those things, people might boycott.
Ah. So you care more about making sure anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers feel comfortable to attend than doing the same for those of us who favor reasonable protection methods? Gotcha. Message heard.
This is also the convention at which this incident occurred.
The full story is there on Twitter, but the short version is: I was moderating a panel. An audience member made a shockingly racist comment. I cut him off, told him that was completely inappropriate, and moved on. He left the room. I was annoyed with myself for not doing more, for not getting his name so that I could give it to the con staff with a suggestion that he was, perhaps, not the sort of attendee they wanted to welcome.
I see now how very wrong I was. That guy was, clearly, exactly the sort of attendee that MarsCon values and seeks to protect.
And, y’know… If you want to host a convention that exclusively caters to the tastes of fans whose idea of what specfic should be calcified somewhere in the Eisenhower administration, who find the beautiful diversity of SFF storytelling threatening, who don’t want cooties getting on what they consider their genre, who don’t like the discomfort they feel when exposed to life experiences that have differed from their own… Then, this is America and, so long as you’re not plotting a crime, you’ve got the freedom of assembly and you can choose with whom you associate. You can choose to run a con for those people.
But just say that. Don’t put out false DEI statements. Don’t catfish the rest of us into giving you a chance. Don’t pretend all are welcome when you are deliberately creating a hostile environment.
And don’t pretend what you’re doing is apolitical.