Steven Brust’s Fourth Street Fantasy Remarks Generate Heat

Steve Brust opened last weekend’s Fourth Street Fantasy convention in Minneapolis with a short speech that used the term “safe space” to make an impact – and succeeded, for better or worse. He upset a number of hearers and ignited a controversy that has played out on Facebook and several blogs in the past two days.

Steven Brust posted his text: “My opening remarks at Fourth Street Fantasy Convention”

Fourth Street Fantasy Convention is not a safe space. On the contrary, it is a very unsafe space. Of course, it ought to be safe in the sense of everyone feeling physically safe, and in the sense that there should be no unwanted harassment, and it should be free of personal attacks of any kind. But other than that, it is not safe.

Your beliefs about writing, and my beliefs about writing, and what is good, and how to make it good, should be sufficiently challenged to make us uncomfortable.

The interaction of art and politics is getting more and more in our faces. Whether this is good or bad is beside the point (although I think it’s good); it reflects changing social conditions, intensification of conflicts. Anyone who thinks art is independent of social conditions is as hopelessly muddled as someone who thinks there is a direct, simplistic 1:1 correspondence between them.

The result of this is that political understanding, unexamined assumptions, agendas, are very much present in the art we create and thus in the discussions of that art.

If no one feels unsafe, or unthreatened during these discussions, we’re doing them wrong. The same is true in discussing technique, because technique, content, form, attitude toward the creation and role of art, and understanding of society, are all interconnected, and in challenging one, we are liable to find ourselves challenging another….

Scott Lynch delivered the Fourth Street Fantasy board’s closing statement, which was perceived to be, in part, a response to Brust:

We, the board of the 4th Street Fantasy Convention exist to facilitate energetic and even challenging conversation. We want to provide spaces to do so, in both a moderated and unmoderated fashion. At 4th Street, the conversation is intended to spread from our shared spaces to more private spaces where attendees may consent to discuss, discourse, blather or argue about anything on any terms they desire.

We do not prescribe a mindset or an approach for attending 4th Street. We do not demand that anyone be made to endure anything against their will. We want to provide a space in which everyone feels welcome, and everyone respects the welcome we desire to extend. What we do here can be hard, it can be frightening, it can be exhausting. We want to support you in doing it. We want you to know that we take your needs, your comfort, and your sense of safety very seriously. As a friend of the convention said this weekend, “It is difficult to be bold in front of strangers when you don’t feel fundamentally welcome.” We are here to listen to you, we are here to have your backs, and we are doing our damnedest to kindle that fundamental sense of welcome, to sustain it, and to make it grow, in this year and every year to come.

Lydy Nickerson articulated her negative response to Brust’s opening speech in “The Rules: A Memo for Every Man in My Life”. (Click to see the complete post. There are substantial comments there, too.)

At Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, this year, Steven Brust, from the dais, delivered a speech about safety and free speech that made me so angry I had to leave the room. Since then, various people have talked about the issues of safety, harassment, and free speech, often as a response to that situation, but sometimes as a continuation of other conversations. I have some very specific issues with the things Steven said, but I don’t want to write about them at this moment. Instead, I want to address something that comes up over and over in these conversations, and always from men. “What are the rules?” “How can I know how to behave if you won’t clarify what you want?”

Dear men, please do not ask me to provide to you something that I have never had. I cannot provide you the rules. I do not know what they are, and I never have. I have spent my entire life, my personal, professional, educational, social, and romantic life, navigating the complexities of human interaction without rules. There has never been a point at which my exact decibel level was approved, the exact number of square inches of skin I can expose has been acceptable, a precise hairstyle I could wear that would clearly communicate who and what I was. I have spent my entire life being judged by a set of shifting rules.

I have spent my entire life being lied to about what those rules were. If I talk too softly, no one listens, but if I speak more loudly, I am bitchy and dismissed. If I am clear and logical, I am mocked for inadequately mimicking maleness, but if I am emotional, I am mocked for being too feminine and not worth paying attention to. There is no level of dress that does not open me up to either being a prude or a slut.

The penalties for transgressing these ever-shifting “rules” vary. Sometimes, it’s just being unpersoned. Sometimes it is getting a bad job-performance review. Sometimes, it’s unwanted and uncomfortable conversations. Always, at the back of my mind, has been the knowledge that if I girl wrong at the wrong guy, I might be physically assaulted. And if that were to happen, my entire girl-ness would then be on trial. What was I wearing? What did I say? How did I say it? Was it my fault? Oh, yes, some percentage of the population will assert, it was totally my fault. Because I didn’t follow a rule that, you know, doesn’t actually apply all the time, isn’t written down, is entirely contextual, and nobody every told me in the first place.

Rules are a luxury that I have never had. The only way rules have ever applied to me is as a stick to beat me with. They are a shifting landscape of horror. I don’t know if all-male spaces have clear, comfortable rules that everybody knows and the penalties are clear. I rather doubt it, but I don’t know. What I do know is that to be a woman in this culture is to be constantly moving through a space where expectations are variable, and are rigidly enforced on a whim, and can dramatically affect my life.

When we talk about harassment, safety, and safe spaces, stop asking me for rules. You never gave me any, and so I have none to give you. All I can offer you is this shifting, difficult, dangerous, ambiguous space that I live in. If you want to be an ally, if, indeed, you want to be my friend, you must learn to inhabit this uncomfortable space with me. You must accept that there aren’t clear rules where you can know that you are right….

Will Shetterly defended Brust’s use of language: “Ideology makes you confuse the literal and the metaphorical–a bit about the 4th Street Kerfuffle”.

The people who’re upset by Steve’s talk are unable to see that his opening lines are metaphorical:

Fourth Street Fantasy Convention is not a safe space. On the contrary, it is a very unsafe space.

And they’re unable to see that his third line is literal:

Of course, it ought to be safe in the sense of everyone feeling physically safe, and in the sense that there should be no unwanted harassment, and it should be free of personal attacks of any kind.

If you think about his statement logically, there’s no reason to interpret the first two lines as saying he wants 4th Street to be a place that’s physically unsafe, and there’s every reason to think his third line means exactly what it says. But humans aren’t logical. To people who think of safe spaces as sacred spaces, any questioning of the idea is taboo. At least one of Steve’s critics insists they do understand metaphor. But if that’s true, why are they upset?

Steve Brust wrote a follow-up on his blog, the end of which reads:

Evidently I was wrong. And, while one can always blame the reader for failing to understand, when enough readers get it wrong, one begins to side-eye the writer.

So let me state clearly and for the record I do not support that kind of atmosphere, I do not want that kind of convention, and I deeply apologize for any pain or fear that was caused by anyone thinking I did mean that.  My fault, not yours.

ETA: It’s worth pointing out that it isn’t just a matter of reading, but that this was a speech, not presented as text, and a speech that, moreover, I deliberately opened with a shocker.  This makes more reasonable the number of people who went past the “physically safe” and “no harassment” parts.  Again, my bad.

470 thoughts on “Steven Brust’s Fourth Street Fantasy Remarks Generate Heat

  1. …and Will’s final word includes quoting James Desborough, apparently with approval.

    My flabber is actually ghasted.

  2. For Brust it took one day to understand what took Shetterly one week. With less gallopping, it might have gone faster.

  3. I am amazed at Will Shetterly’s troll level. Trolling regarding the definition of trolling. Superb job, Will! It’s almost classic alt.religion.kibology level trolling.

    An observation regarding sealioning and how it looks to someone on your side vs. an opponent (addressing frenemy Will’s claim that people love sealions if they agree with their basic premises):

    An old friend of mine loved to sealion back in our middle- and high school days (that wasn’t the word for it back in the mid- to late 80s, but that’s what he was doing). He used to infuriate me, because he would make the most ridiculous propositions but encase them in a logic puzzle, so that assailing the ridiculous proposition required first dismantling the logic puzzle. And then, of course, he’d move the goalposts and etc.. He, of course, also loved playing the Devil’s Advocate, so his arguments were always regarding heated subjects – subjects that didn’t matter one bit to him. He could approach the entire conversation with a detached, slightly amused air, and remain calm and polite as he attempted to argue that eg. gay people should go through conversion therapy (or some equally infuriating position). Once I figured out what a toxic asshole he was (his dishonest argumentation style wasn’t the only thing dishonest about him), I stayed away from him.

    Fast forward 15 years, and he friends me on Facebook. Still the same smug Devil’s Advocate, still taking unpopular positions that he obviously did not at all care about, still smug and by-the-books polite. Still shocked, shocked I say! whenever the discussion got heated. Eventually I unfriended him, because I have no interest in arguing with people who don’t care about the issue their arguing, particularly when it’s something important to me. A couple years later he came back and re-friended me, saying he’d changed and blah blah. Yes, he’d changed – he’d gone from a self-righteous, right-wing Christian to a self-righteous, left-wing atheist. It was just as repulsive to watch from the “same” side of the issues as it had been to deal with it from the opposite.

    I do appreciate that he taught me to let go of giving a kitten’s yawn about the opinions or regard of sealions.

  4. Trolling regarding the definition of trolling.

    Even better, he sea lioned about the definition of sea lioning.

    Some people are simply malicious clowns. There is no need for anyone to ever engage with someone who is wearing floppy clown shoes.

  5. There is no need for anyone to ever engage with someone who is wearing floppy clown shoes.

    There’s also no need to pop bubble wrap, yet some people find it strangely compelling.

    But, no, there has never been any need to respond to WS. You won’t learn anything useful, you risk spraining an eye, and you’ll have an epic example of sealioning to look back on.

  6. @Hampus
    Thanks for the lengthy quote from the author of the cartoon. It was nice to see I’m not the only one who initially saw it as saying that minorities ought to keep quiet. And nice to learn that wasn’t meant to be the message.

    As for why anyone would take it that way, I can’t think of any other context when someone would say “I don’t have a problem with most X but I can’t stand Y” and then someone stands up and says “I’m Y. What is your problem with me?” I have a hard time thinking of a scenario where X and Y are not minority groups. Or when it’s correct for the person not to immediately apologize.

    Even if the authors didn’t mean it that way, I still see the cartoon sending the message “Once you’ve stood up for yourself, don’t keep pushing it.” The Sea lion was right to stand up for himself, and right to be polite, but wrong to persist once it was clear the bigots weren’t changing their minds. I don’t even disagree with that. (I’ve often told people not to waste time trying to convert bigots.) It would even be useful. “You’ve made your point; quit sea lioning.”

    The author’s claim to have only meant to send a message about people who won’t let something go is barely plausible, but I’ll take his word for it. It’s hard to be sure you’ve thought through all the implications of everything you say.

    Finally, I’m perfectly okay with the idea that the word has acquired a different meaning. That happens all the time. But one should be aware that it is easy to read the cartoon as delivering a message you don’t want people to get. It’s probably not the best way to explain the term.

  7. @Greg Hullender – I was reading Wondermark regularly when the sealion comic came out, and I seem to recall this was a time when MRAs were running rampant and sealioning was a huge problem. Not that sealioning isn’t a problem any more, but at the time, the meaning was immediately obvious, to me at least. Re-reading it a few months ago, I noticed the same problem you did. The rest of the comic addresses that issue, kind of, by showing why the other characters don’t like sea lions, but if you think of the sea lions being discussed as sea lions, and not certain types of behavior, it’s hard not to read it as pro-bigotry. I think, though, the comic addresses bad behavior, rather than groups of people (though it also addresses MRAs, but then, that term goes hand-in-hand with certain types of behavior).

  8. @kathodus: I think a related description of this sort of behavior is the “Just Asking Questions” thing, which is usually referred to as “JAQing off”. Basically, it is when someone shows up in a thread and starts asking disingenuous questions designed to derail the conversation. It is usually pretty obvious that they aren’t actually interested in the answers, they just want their targets to spend time explaining basic concepts rather than discuss the topic at hand.

  9. WS managed to keep this thread going for a week. I think that’s an achievement that stands on its own, just a different sort than the record owned by Brian Z.

    I have mixed feelings with this thread ending. I mean, I am getting a little bored with it, but I am in awe of WS’ perseverance and stamina, all given over to explaining away something that SB already apologized for. Is there a word for feeling befuddlement, disdain and admiration all at the same time?

  10. The comic is from September 19th, 2014. That was just at the beginning of Gamergate. That is the context. So yes, it was clear then.

  11. I just love how Shetterly kept spamming the thread with links to his blog in the hope of luring readers to go there. Sure, because putting up with an asshole on File770 isn’t enough, you need to go to their blog to get an extra dose of asshole behavior. 🙄

  12. JJ: Funny how abuse of a privilege makes a person start thinking. I don’t mind when people drop in a link to what they’ve been doing, and I’m often happy to see that good writers are getting traffic because of a link in the Scroll. In Will’s case, since nobody was clicking on his links I decided the issue was moot.

  13. Hampus, funny about the circular link! I have no idea how you did that!

    Mike, it’s interesting to me that you can see when people follow links from your site to other places.

  14. That’s a very cute and sweet fox video. Thanks Hampus! The circular link is doable thanks to there being a five minute editing window for comments, I’m guessing. But I Am Not A Comment Wizard.

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  16. The Sea lion was right to stand up for himself, and right to be polite, but wrong to persist once it was clear the bigots weren’t changing their minds.

    You can give it any meaning you like, but the reason the term sea lion became widely popular is because the rest of us recognized the much more obvious metaphor.

    We recognized the sea lion’s behavior as an obnoxious form of trolling masquerading as honest inquiry. We knew these twerps were among us and finally had a name for them.

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