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. @World Weary

    I’m more concerned about their endurance rather than their speed. This thing seems to be a marathon not a sprint.

  2. Mark, LOL. I admire WS’ endurance. I’d have given up a long time ago, and I am usually the one not able to let anything go,

    Nigel, I like it!

  3. Lydy Nickerson: What’s the land speed record for a sea lion?

    African or European?

  4. So far, the joke is the idea that something can be neither literal nor metaphorical. Has anyone come up with a specific example?

    There seems to be an argument that idioms, like cliches, are so familiar that we don’t have to process them as we do a new metaphor. But that does not mean they aren’t metaphors. It just means they’re familiar.

  5. Y’know, Lydy and WW may be onto something. For those of us who try to use language consciously, idioms are metaphorical. But for people who often use an idiom, it functions as a unit of sound that the hearer does not think about because the hearers believe they know the meaning—they literally don’t think about it. So when Steve used “safe space” as a metaphor, the part of the audience that has a single understanding of “safe space” literally could not grasp what he was saying.

  6. Dear Mark-kitteh: Please take this internet. I admit there is coffee all over it, but that is entirely your fault.

  7. I find myself wondering whether “positive reinforcement” is literal or metaphorical when discussing operant conditioning. But I’m not wondering very hard, because I actually understand what “term of art” means.

  8. I find myself wondering who “tries to use language consciously” without considering how their language use will be interpreted by their audience.

    Or rather, who succeeds at using language in that fashion, and what that success looks like.

  9. @Will Shetterly

    Greg, how is it not metaphorical? Kicking the bucket is not meant literally—it’s a metaphor for dying. There are several theories for its origin, but whether it was originally a bucket or a beam or something else, that idiom seems perfectly metaphorical. I’d love to hear your argument that it isn’t.

    If I say “The sea was a mirror,” that’s a metaphor. You know the sea isn’t really a mirror, but you know what I mean. I read novels in French, Spanish, and Italian, and when I run across a new metaphor, even though I’ve never heard it in English, I can always figure it out. (Contrast “simile” where I’d say “The sea was like a mirror.”)

    But with “Kick the bucket” or “Everything was in apple-pie order,” there is no way in the world to figure it out without a visit to the dictionary.

    Y’know, Lydy and WW may be onto something. For those of us who try to use language consciously, idioms are metaphorical. But for people who often use an idiom, it functions as a unit of sound that the hearer does not think about because the hearers believe they know the meaning—they literally don’t think about it.

    Linguists refer to this as lexicalizing a phrase. That means it effectively becomes a new “word” in the dictionary–a word that happens to contain spaces–whose meaning cannot be deduced simply from the pieces. “Real estate” is a good example. One could argue “safe space” is too.

    An idiom is a bit more than a lexicalized expression because, unlike the latter, an idiom is not “productive.” Note that I cannot say “The bucket was kicked by him.” Only certain grammatical forms of the idiom are valid, whereas a lexicalized expression should have the same flexibility as any other word.

  10. Greg Hullender: An idiom is a bit more than a lexicalized expression because, unlike the latter, an idiom is not “productive.” Note that I cannot say “The bucket was kicked by him.” Only certain grammatical forms of the idiom are valid, whereas a lexicalized expression should have the same flexibility as any other word.

    I don’t know where this fits in, if at all, but you remind me that Alexander McCall Smith does a wordplay on referencing the dead as “the late Mr. So-and-So” by having a character in a novel speak of “people who are late.”

  11. @Mike: There is also the bit in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where Slartibartfast tells Arthur Dent to hurry, or he’ll be late. “Late for what?” Arthur asks. “Late as in the late dentarthurdent,” replies Slartibartfast.

  12. Just saw this thread is still active. I haven’t read all the comments, but I finally understand what ‘sea lioning’ means.

  13. Well, I learned that one man’s jargon is another man’s term of art. Never stop learning… 😉

  14. The thread is reminding me of a Monty Python sketch: nobody expects the sealion exposition!

  15. From the cartoon, I would gather that “to sea lion” is to continue to press someone on an issue past they point where it’s clear they realize they’re wrong in an attempt to force them to admit it. A polite person, having made his/her point, will simply drop the subject once it’s clear the other person can’t really defend it. Sea Lions never drop anything.

    That said, to accuse someone of sea lioning is to admit to being wrong, no? Or at least to having an indefensible position. It’s like pleading the fifth amendment.

  16. @Mike Glyer
    That use of “the late Mr. X” is an interesting one, but I’d argue that it functions the same way a title does. “The honorable Mr. X” works the same way. Very few adjectives can come between “the” and “Mr.” but I suspect they follow the same pattern.

    So (I claim) jokes like “You’re going to be late to your own funeral” “Of course, I’ll be the late Mr. X” are simply puns. That is, the word “late” has two different semantic values, and you pretend you’ve mixed them up.

  17. @Greg Hullender–

    From the cartoon, I would gather that “to sea lion” is to continue to press someone on an issue past they point where it’s clear they realize they’re wrong in an attempt to force them to admit it.

    No, a “sea lion” is someone who claims to be trying to understand something, but always has another question. And another. And another. It wouldn’t matter if they claimed to believe water runs uphill rather than downhill, and asked you to explain about it supposedly running downhill. No amount of evidence you could produce would bring them to admit that water does in fact run downhill. They will always have one more question, until you are ready to agree that maybe water runs uphill rather than downhill, just to end the frustrating and exhausting argument.

    So no, accusing someone of being a sea lion isn’t admitting to being wrong. It’s calling out the harassment for what it is.

  18. @Greg Hullender – That is not my understanding of Sea Lioning. I have a hard time defining it, myself, but here’s a concise definition that makes sense to me:

    (from http://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2014/11/word-of-the-week-sea-lioning.html)

    In social media, pestering a target with unsolicited questions delivered with a false air of civility.

    To my eyes, WS is performing a combination of Sea Lioning and Gish Galloping (wherein you flood your opponent with incorrect assumptions and statements, causing them to spend a whole lot of time correcting all of those if they want to continue the conversation. Not continuing the conversation is, of course, tacit acknowledgment that they are correct). He has that extremely polite demeanor of a sea lion, while also continually starting up new, seemingly (to me) pointless arguments about trivial points. It really just seems he enjoys arguing.

  19. To my mind, it doesn’t actually matter in the comic whether or not the speaker’s initial position is correct. There is no escape from the sea lion. The sea lion continues to ask his civil questions while they are in bed, eating breakfast, etc. While his tone is always civil, he is unrelenting and never gives her a moment’s peace. He is also completely oblivious that his own behavior is backing up her initial statement that she could due without sea lions. So, while apparently polite, the sea lion’s own behavior actually proves the opposite of the point that he was trying to make, e.g. GG is about ethics in journalism. Not that they were all that polite…

  20. Greg Hullender:

    “From the cartoon, I would gather that “to sea lion” is to continue to press someone on an issue past they point where it’s clear they realize they’re wrong in an attempt to force them to admit it.”

    Feels like you didn’t read the comic. The persons say that she could do without sea lions. The sea lion then appears makes it clear exactly why. There is nothing in it about being “wrong”. Instead, she is obviously quite right in wanting to avoid the sea lions.

    And this is the way the expression is used:

    “A subtle form of trolling involving “bad-faith” questions. You disingenuously frame your conversation as a sincere request to be enlightened, placing the burden of educating you entirely on the other party. If your bait is successful, the other party may engage, painstakingly laying out their logic and evidence in the false hope of helping someone learn. In fact you are attempting to harass or waste the time of the other party, and have no intention of truly entertaining their point of view. Instead, you react to each piece of information by misinterpreting it or requesting further clarification, ad nauseum.”

    Honestly, your way of trying to redefine the expression is how Brust got into trouble.

  21. I’d say the current specimen’s recent baseless insinuation that another poster engages in racist behavior shows that his particular veneer of civility is false.

  22. @Hampus Eckerman

    Feels like you didn’t read the comic.

    I saw that definition, but it doesn’t match the comic. Reread the comic, but replace “sea lion” with “homosexual” or other minority. (Better, use a derogatory word for a minority.) Then you’ll see where I’m coming from.

    I do see the point that the sea lion proves her point, in a way, by being so persistent. In that case, though, the cartoon seems to be making fun of anyone who stands up to discrimination. That’s not a great interpretation either.

  23. Greg Hullender: I saw that definition, but it doesn’t match the comic. Reread the comic, but replace “sea lion” with “homosexual” or other minority. (Better, use a derogatory word for a minority.) Then you’ll see where I’m coming from.

    It does match the comic.

    By replacing “sea lion” with a minority, you are completely changing the meaning of the cartoon.

    Sea lions aren’t an oppressed or marginalized minority. They’re assholes who argue endlessly on the internet, reveling in wasting other peoples’ time and energy. They aren’t interested in a genuine dialogue, nor are they wanting to learn. Their goal is to annoy and harass — and they do it in such a way, with faux civility, that if the person(s) they are harassing gets fed up and responds with annoyance, the sea lion can claim that it’s the harassee who is behaving badly.

  24. Lydy, you say you know what a term of art is, but a term of art has a specific meaning to the group that uses it, which is to say, it is meant to be understood literally by them. Which is why the people who understood “safe space” as a term of art were so upset when Steve used it metaphorically.

    Greg, thank you. Your definition of idiom seems to be “obscure metaphor”–you need to know the references to make sense of the metaphor, but if you’re very familiar with a language, you can use an idiom to communicate without knowing its past.

    As for “the bucket was kicked by him”, give the internet a little more time. 🙂

    As for “sealion” as a verb, based on the cartoon, it means “politely persist”, a trait admired in friends and hated in foes.

    Abi, if you know any writers who have never been wrong about what their audience would understand, tell them I envy them, and I am sure I am not alone.

  25. Will Shetterly: As for “sealion” as a verb, based on the cartoon, it means “politely persist”, a trait admired in friends and hated in foes.

    Nice attempt at retconning the meaning of the cartoon to try to make yourself look better.

    However, given that the artist entitled it “The Terrible Sea Lion”, tagged it “annoyances”, and shows the sea lion intrusively and inappropriately following people into their homes and even bedrooms to continue harassing them long after they’ve asked it to go away and leave them alone, it’s pretty clear that he’s referring to intrusive, offensively-persistent internet trolls.

  26. Wait, wait. Is Will really arguing that sealioning is good behavior? I may never stop laughing.

  27. JJ, of course the sea lion is terrible to the people who oppose it. I said so.

    But if a sea lion was a troll, the word would not have caught on. Trolls appear with their own issues and insult people like a fifth grade bully. The sea lion is relentlessly on topic, even when others want to drop it, and perfectly polite.

    Lydy, you missed this part of what I wrote: “and hated in foes”. But that’s fine. I’m fascinated by the manifestations of cognitive dissonance. Gandhi covered them well when he wrote that first they ignore you….

  28. Greg Hullender:

    “I saw that definition, but it doesn’t match the comic. Reread the comic, but replace “sea lion” with “homosexual” or other minority. (Better, use a derogatory word for a minority.) Then you’ll see where I’m coming from.”

    I did reread the comic and found it to be a clear match to how the expression was used. I see where you are coming from, but I have no idea why you should change the word “sea lion” to that of a minority, when it is not used to talk about minorities.

    Why would you change it to a minority instead of to other words, such as “lobbyist”, “harasser” or “gamergater”? Or to none of those words?

  29. Shetterly:

    “As for “sealion” as a verb, based on the cartoon, it means “politely persist”, a trait admired in friends and hated in foes.”

    Ah, now I understand. You invent whole new meanings to expressions. So when you say “sealioning” it means being polite, when you say “safe space” you mean scared of snow and when you say “metaphor”, you mean using a word that you have no idea of what it means.

    This was interesting, because it means we can’t trust one word you say, because the meaning of them might be something that exists only in your head.

  30. And an errata for those misunderstand the comic:

    “It has been suggested that the couple in this comic, and the woman in particular, are bigots for making a pejorative statement about a species of animal, and then refusing to justify their statements. It has been further suggested that they be read as overly privileged, because they are dressed fancily, have a house, a motor-car, etc. This is, I suppose, a valid read of the comic, if taken as written.

    But often, in satire such as this, elements are employed to stand in for other, different objects or concepts. Using animals for this purpose has the effect of allowing the point (which usually is about behavior) to stand unencumbered by the connotations that might be suggested if a person is portrayed in that role — because all people are members of some social group or other, even if said group identity is not germane to the point being made.

    Such is the case with this comic. The sea lion character is not meant to represent actual sea lions, or any actual animal. It is meant as a metaphorical stand-in for human beings that display certain behaviors. Since behaviors are the result of choice, I would assert that the woman’s objection to sea lions — which, if the metaphor is understood, is read as actually an objection to human beings who exhibit certain behaviors — is not analogous to a prejudice based on race, species, or other immutable characteristics.

    My apologies if the use of a metaphorical sea lion in this strip, rather than a human being making conscious choices about their own behavior, was in any way confusing.

    As for their attire: everyone in Wondermark dresses like that.”

  31. Hampus, are you saying that Will doesn’t understand metaphor? Oh, say it isn’t so!

  32. @Will Shetterly

    But if a sea lion was a troll, the word would not have caught on.

    A sea lion is a type of troll.

  33. Hampus, since you don’t trust words that I use, here are words other people use:

    Regarding “safe space”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safe-space#Criticism

    The first thing Google offers if you google “metaphor”: “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”

    As for “sealion”, any comic strip is open to interpretation. Even its creator may not be fully aware of its implications, simply because artists are human. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorial_intent

  34. We are being sea-lioned about sea-lioning, and so the circle is complete as the sea-lion bites its own tail.

  35. Will Shetterly: But if a sea lion was a troll, the word would not have caught on.

    Well, that’s a total non sequitur. The first thing has nothing to do with the second.

    The term “caught on” because it describes a specific type of troll and it resonated with a lot of people who had experienced that particular flavor of trolling.

  36. ‘Politely persistent’ is so redolent of guys who go on and on chatting up, giving advice, passing remarks and asking questions of women who really, really want them to go away, and react as of the woman’s increasing frostiness and hostility is inexplicable and reflects poorly on the woman when they’ve been so polite.

  37. JJ, there’s no definitive definition of any word anywhere, of course, but Wikipedia has a decent definition of internet troll: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_troll

    Note that unlike a troll, a sea lion does not start the discussion, does not go off-topic, and is polite rather than inflammatory. However, language is mutable, so the definition of troll may expand to include sea lion.

  38. But if a sea lion was a troll, the word would not have caught on.

    “But if a dachshund was a dog, the word would not have caught on.”

    Now do you see just how ridiculously stupid you sound when you say that?

  39. I have blogged twice more using comments from this discussion:

    http://shetterly.blogspot.com/2017/06/understanding-identitarian-difficulty.html

    http://shetterly.blogspot.com/2017/06/the-terrible-sea-lion-persistent.html

    Now that I believe I understand what happened at Fourth Street, I’ll unsubscribe from this post.

    Greg, thanks for your contributions, and especially for mentioning lexicology. I’m inclined to think an obscure metaphor is still a metaphor, but I can see the argument that if the general public doesn’t know what it refers to, it’s now something else.

    Lydy and World Weary, thanks for bringing up terms of art and idioms. I had seen that concepts like safe space were not treated as common words in your community, but I was focusing on how visceral your reaction was to their metaphorical use, and I was remembering the religious roots of social justice, so I saw the reaction as having more to do with taboos than cultural differences. Both are factors, of course, but I now think the element of taboo was less important than your initial difficulty to grasp that your term of art was not everyone’s understanding of what is meant when “space” is modified by “safe”.

  40. Hampus, thanks for those links. I hadn’t seen them before.

    I can’t believe that this thread is still going on…

  41. “Having redefined things to fit into my own unacknowledged identitarian biases, I bit you all adieu,” said the dread Sea Lion Taserface.

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