Let He Who Is Without Sin

Let's talk about Jonathan Ross and the Hugos. He was announced as the host of the Hugos at Loncon3, there was a Twitter uproar, and then he stepped down, all over the course of a few hours. This incident has left many people uncomfortable, and I'm one of them. 

I woke up one fine Saturday morning to discover that Farah Mendlesohn, a member of the Loncon committee, had resigned because a misogynist, racist, all around offensive fellow had been tapped to host the Hugos. (That would be Jonathan Ross.) I read her post (which has since been removed). I did a bit of light double-checking. I saw his controversies section in Wikipedia. I saw the Mirror article of his top ten most controversial moments.

Now here's the thing: when this began, I didn't know Jonathan Ross from Adam. I'd never heard of him before and had zero cultural context for understanding just how controversial he might be. Given the outcry, I assumed that must be pretty awful. I prepared to join that general outcry.

Within moments, my friend Naomi Alderman reacted to this question with utter bafflement. She's in the UK herself, and familiar with that media landscape. She's also as staunch a feminist as I know; indeed, she's habitually more sensitive to these issues in media than am I, and can't watch or read some things I enjoy because of their misogyny. Other UK friends soon corroborated: Ross was not a controversial figure in the UK, no more than Jay Leno. 

I found myself searching for reasons to defend the outcry. He must be an inappropriate choice, I thought. The internet had told me so. A bad fit for the event. Nothing to do with genre. We didn't need yet another white dude. And anyway look at how pissed off he is at all of these people calling him a sexist douchebag! Nail in the coffin!

It's important to recognize what happened in my head right there, and probably in others' as well. I, having no direct knowledge of the merits of the matter at hand, heard an accusation that appealed to my politics and sense of justice. And I leapt to a conclusion. I was willing to go to the mat for that conclusion. It turns out I might've been wrong.

Ross is married to a Hugo winner, so I'm thinking he knows the magnitude of the award. He's spoken at other genre events before. He's a steady advocate for SF/F in the mainstream. He's said some off-color stuff from time to time, to be sure, but looking at the grand arc of his career, it doesn't appear to be characterized by raunchy humor and exploitation.

People make mistakes, and the truth is often more complicated than something as straightforward as "Ross is a misogynist, homophobic, racist jerk." Ross has spent a lot of time in public life. He's going to screw up and say the wrong thing from time to time. I can't help but notice that most of those wrong things he's said happened several years ago.

For lo these many moons, we in SF/F circles have been fighting the good fight against all of the -isms. And we've made great progress, I think. As a community, we've become much more sensitive to offering perceived affront. Our literature is becoming more diverse, more representative, and richer and broader for it. It's been a good and necessary effort.

But meanwhile... I've seen a lot of discomfort from the SF/F men in my Twitter stream the past few days, a reluctance to talk about this issue in public.

I can't blame them. Suddenly we've created an environment where a high-profile individual saying the wrong thing at the wrong time risks being devoured alive, with no judge or jury. No benefit of the doubt. No pause to step back and measure the magnitude of the offense. Forget the ridiculous Truesdale petition about censorship -- but there is a real chilling effect going on here. People are afraid to disagree with what happened.

Fear doesn't make for good discourse.

Even saying "Hey, I think the accusations against Ross were overblown and ultimately wrong, we should chill out a little bit," could risk a dude losing friends or fans because suddenly they can be cast in the light of anti-feminism. Even good men, strong allies, active feminists. 

But you know what? I think the Ross-Loncon3 situation is a sign to us that maybe we should chill out a little bit.

...Because this isn't how I want my community to be. The shift from "this person is doing something objectionable right now and we have to stop it," to "this person said some objectionable things some years in the past and so he's not welcome among us," is one that gives me great pause. You know who else has said some objectionable things in the past? Me. You know who else? You.

I'd like to be in a community that practices forgiveness, that educates instead of excoriates. A community that gives second chances. That says, "Hey, that was wrong, you should apologize and this is how you can do it better next time," and not, "Don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out." 

I'd especially not like to be in a community that says "You've screwed up before, so you're definitely gonna screw up again next time. Get lost, asshole." Which looks to me like what ultimately happened in the Ross situation.

I am by no means suggesting we stop advocating for equality, for representation, for moderation in public venues. I want these things to continue, and in spades. We want to create a safe space for all people. We want to discourage hateful speech and action. 

But we can't demand perfection. There are no perfect people. If we can't allow room within our community for people to screw up and get better, or for people to thoughtfully disagree, then eventually all the flawed people will be gone. And nobody will be left at all.


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