Resignations From Context Committee Over Harassment Policy Enforcement

Context’s Programming Manager Steven Saus has announced his resignation from the committee saying “I do not have faith that the harassment policy will be enforced or that reports of harassment would be treated seriously at Context in the future,” even after the board processed a harassment complaint at Context 27 and banned a con suite worker from the convention for five years.

Writing Workshop Coordinator Lucy Snyder followed suit, announcing her resignation on Facebook. And author Jason Sanford, who regularly attends the con, has written a post “Why I won’t be returning to the Context SF convention”.

Context 27 took place the last weekend in September and several harassment complaints were made against one individual. To outward appearances the committee delivered a prompt reaction, as within a few weeks the individual had made an online apology and the board had announced its ban. However, “prompt” is a subjective term – while the committee may have worked much more rapidly than, say, WisCon (which has taken a year or more in a couple of cases), Steven Saus and Lucy Snyder were so dissatisfied with the progress they began responding about the issue in social media. Then, in his latest post, Saus asserts, “Without myself and a very few others, I do not believe there would have been any public response to the reports of harassment at Context 27.”

The other voices, including members of both the Board and the Convention Committee argued against taking action, reducing actions taken, and not making things public….

One ConComm member asserted that no report of harassment could be taken seriously without an uninvolved third party witnessing it. Another stated that unless reports were made at the convention that they couldn’t be taken seriously. In e-mail, a board member used sarcasm quotes referring to the “victims” of harassment. A board member mused about undoing the consequences that were decided upon after the meeting had adjourned. Others blamed those reporting harassment, ignored all but the public reports, and advocated that nothing be said or done publicly. Much was made of the feelings of the harasser – who never denied these multiple reports – while the feelings and safety of congoers were ignored.

This range of responses is typical of harassment cases. What interpretation to put on the discussion is another matter.

Sharon Palmer, who ran the con suite, left a comment on Saus’ blog disagreeing with his characterization:

I am a member of the committee am saying this as my own opinion, and NOT that of the committee, that Steve has misrepresented the issue. Since he has chosen to make this so public, I want to say that he is wrong.  Context has had an antiharassment policy for several years, and has never tolerated harassment and never would, especially not by a staff member.  Please give us time to work through the ramifications of this. We want Context to be an awesome and SAFE convention.

Palmer also responded to Lucy Snyder on Facebook:

Steve and Lucy said “handle it our way or we quit”. And we did. They quit anyway in a way that seems designed to destroy the convention.

From their choices and the price they’re paying Saus and Snyder appear to be trying to improve Context, not destroy it. However, why was resigning the best response to its perceived shortcomings?

In every case I’ve ever heard about there has been resistance to actually carrying out the full terms of the antiharassment policy. Even conventions designed to attract the most progressive viewpoints have been rent by dissent when it came time to apply the policy to people they knew. And here, Context could point to a successful resolution of a complaint, a rarity among the cases that have become public.

Perhaps the frustration and stress from winning out made the prospect of doing it again too painful to contemplate. Also, Saus doubted the outcome of any future complaints and was unwilling to see his name associated with any failure to enforce the con’s policies:

I do not realistically have the ability to make that change before Context 28. Therefore, both out of my ethics and as a signatory to John Scalzi’s harassment pledge, I must resign as programming director for Context. Further, I will not be attending Context 28.

Saus’ announcement follows a series of posts he wrote to sharpen his thinking as the committee went through the process of settling on its official statement regarding the harassment complaints. He seemed to have adopted a pragmatic approach in “We Don’t Need To Police Thoughts. Actions and Statements Are A Different Matter Entirely”. It says in part —

Think that harassment policies are stupid or over the top?  Great!  Obey them anyway, or go somewhere else.

Because if you’re sexist, homophobic, racist, or generally just an asshat, I’m not interested in changing your thoughts. But I am damn sure interested in changing the way you treat others.

He was writing about people in general, not the Context board. It’s just that in pondering his resignation I’d expect someone whose goal is to change behavior rather than thoughts to treat any resistance to his principles as counting less than a bottom-line result which is honoring to them.