MoonFail: Safe Spaces Made Unsafe

MoonFail: Safe Spaces Made Unsafe

There’s a lot to talk about regarding the WisCon concom’s response to the Elizabeth Moon thing, but I am going to start with something that’s been brewing in my head for a while and this issue has crystalized it a bit. It’s to do with feeling safe and safe spaces, conventions, and individual effects on such.

I don’t think I have it in me to be really elegant about this right now, so I’m just going to lay my brain out on a plate and hope it makes sense. Okay? Here we go.

Remember right after this year’s WisCon when there was much discussion on the meaning of safe spaces instigated by Jay Lake’s statements and the reaction to such (including mine)? You may also remember that in the wake of that other Wiscon attendees also emailed the concom about their feeling of unsafeness and Debbie Notkin wrote a passionate response to them here.

I happen to know one of the people who wrote to the concom, and in a discussion with that person afterward ze told me that hir unsafe feelings came not from physical discomfort (obviously) and not from fear of POC ganging up on hir. The fear was that ze would say or do something hurtful, or clueless, or whatever, and then would be talked about on the Internet. It was the last part – that people would talk about hir on the Internet – that was of most importance. Because once it got to the web it could hurt hir tangibly (this person is a published writer).

At the time, I wasn’t really sure how to answer that fear. And I’ve been chewing on it over the last few months. And I’ve finally come to realize why I can’t really sympathize with that fear, nor sympathize with the feeling of unsafeness it gave this writer. Because, truly, where else are we supposed to discuss these issues but on the Internet? Yes, we discuss them at conventions, or in person at other gatherings, or amongst friends. But we’re a community spread out across the country. And we come together on the web to do many things, including to discuss that which harms us. The unspoken desire here is that this writer would rather people just not bring up hir problematic behavior in public.

This is also what’s behind the “unsafeness” Jay Lake was on about. He doesn’t want people to bring up his problematic behavior to his face. There appear to be several people who feel this way. It all comes down to this: Don’t bring up my problematic behavior in venues where it will make me feel uncomfortable. The writer I spoke to seems to be comfortable processing her problematic behavior in person, which is fine. That’s a step up from people who don’t even want to acknowledge they might have problematic behaviors. But still, it’s a riff on that whole attitude where people who are hurt by this problematic behavior should kindly, quietly, take the person aside and have a closed, private discussion in order to make the perpetrator comfortable.

Making the perpetrator comfortable is not the goal here. It should never be the goal. When you engage in hurtful actions or speak hurtful words, your comfort is not of prime concern.

And that brings me back to Elizabeth Moon.

What the concom has done is to make the prime concern NOT the people who are hurt by Moon’s words. Instead, they’re asking them to once again to step into the role of educator to the ignorant, the hurtful, the actively prejudiced. Yes, it is hard work erasing prejudice in society and in individuals. And yes, those who are most hurt are often the ones who have to do a lot of the erasing. But, you know what, good allies would recognize that this is not how things should be. And instead of putting the onus on the hurt, they should be taking up that burden for the good of everyone.

Instead we have some bullshit about teachable moments. I’m sorry I can’t be more delicate than that.

As much as people tied themselves in knots over those few (probably) white folks feeling unsafe because someone might call them on their unexamined privilege, their hurtful words, their clueless actions, I don’t see many of those same people getting upset that the concom has done quite a thorough job ensuring that Muslim attendees really will feel unsafe. Not because of some feared encounter that may never happen, but because of a person who has baldly stated their views and is coming to this con to be honored.

This is what it means to feel unsafe at a convention. This.

I’m bothered even more by this whole situation because WisCon is not supposed to be the kind of con I skip over stuff like this. Other conventions have truly despicable people as GoH1, but then you just don’t go. You don’t support. You go to WisCon, instead.

Now what do we do?

That’s another post. In the meantime, read these things:


  1. Looking at you, Orson Scott Card []

7 thoughts on “MoonFail: Safe Spaces Made Unsafe

  1. I am feeling quite silenced (not by you or by PoC or allies or whatever, but by the range of voices that I can hear and relate to, and the complexity of the topics).

    So all I want to say now is that I appreciate you, and I’m glad you speak and I’m glad you’re coming to WisCon.

  2. Lovely, lovely post. I think you’re exactly right about the fear being “some people will say terrible things about me on the internet” — although the fact that a number of these very privileged people said and still say horrible horrible terrible things on the internet in public and even sometimes under LJ pseud instead of their real names about a number of the anti-racist fans who have participated in Racefail discussions. So it’s very much “do not do to me what I’ve done nastily and gleefully and multiply to you.” The irony, it burns.

    (apologies if this comes through twice, the browser froze on me and I had to shut it down last time).

  3. Even if they’re not going for safe space… and others have observed that they’re not always so quick to insist that they aren’t… there is at least a thin crack of land between “creating and enforcing a safe space” and “actively making the space one controls unsafe” that the ConCom could be trying to inhabit.

    It’s similar to the small margin between “honoring someone” and “excluding and silencing” them that the ConCom couldn’t figure out how to squeeze into.

  4. In my experience there is no such thing as safe space. The idea that there is/can be/should be causes incalculable harm. I wish we could kill that idea.

  5. It seems to me that the cited safety issue – that terrible things will be said about one on the Internet – is not an aspect of Wiscon or any other convention. Instead, that people say terrible things about other people on the Internet is precisely a feature of the Internet. It is the Internet that is unsafe, not Wiscon.

    (This is outside of the question of whether Wiscon really is “safe space” or indeed whether “safe space” is at all a good thing. We cannot make a space safe for some people without necessarily making it unsafe for others.)

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