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.