Since before the Great Exclusion Act of 1939, the science-fiction community has had its share of controversies, feuds and flame wars -- between pros, between fans, between pros and fans. Maybe more than its share. Discussion about these controversies -- whether in fanzines or online -- has often generated more heat than light. How can we research and write about controversial issues in the field? Is it ever possible to just stick to the facts? Panelists talk about what they've learned about how to approach these issues.
– writes as M.J. Locke
Mike Glyer – fandom journalist
– fan moderator
Eric Flint - novelist
Will sets down The Law. There is much applause!
Opening question for the panel: what is your experience writing about a controversy. Mike says that one of the principles of the internet is that people like to attract attention to themselves, and that some of the very large kerfluffles there might be 10 or 15 people covering something and that the interlinking feeds off each other as a firestorm of interest. Scalzi talks about his time in journalism writing about controversies professionally which he said was kind of awesome. In some sense it's almost Hegelian, starting with thesis, and then synthesis, etc. He says that internet interactions has caused that progress to accelerate. Flint talks about Napoleon's Dictum of you shouldn't ascribe to malignancy what can be developed from incompetence. Laura says that if something is a serious issue and a potential threat, start from the facts, review your responsibilities to relating those facts, and put them out there so people can evaluate them for themselves.
Will asks Mike about historical-wise, are there more people being stupid, or just more people period. Mike says probably both. While we still tend to have in common reading SF and being interested in the creators of it, but his background equips him to compare things to what was active in the 80s. Eric says that the 5th of his 6 rules is remember the internet effect, which is that you do not see the person you are arguing with, and that emoticons are no substitute for faces and posture, etc. That online interactions tend to be more belligerent than otherwise because of that distance imposed, and that one should try to remember that.
Laura says that the rules of behavior in corporate environments are completely different, and that she was surprised to compare that to how writers behave without as much tact and analysis and diplomacy. Scalzi says that the internet is face blind and you can't recognize that and sometimes the only thing you have to deal with is the words. To him the way you interact with people online is much more akin to writing than it is face-to-face. The ability to edit and be more forceful can lead to people sometimes being less careful about their phrasing and like you're yelling into people's face. Brings up the “The failure mode of clever is asshole” thing that he's brought up elsewhere.
Will asks about how much you can report just the facts. Asks the panel what their experiences sorting out facts from opinions. John says that one of the problems is a lot of things get presented as factual in a rhetorical way that are in fact just opinions asserted as fact. That it is one's job writing about these things and determine whether things being asserted as true are in fact based in reality or based in the agenda they may be trying to promote. That it may be the job of people writing about things like this to pop that bubble of assertions and take it down to facts. Laura says that she has tried to keep that in her mind when doing her research.
Will asks about sourcing, and how do you find your facts. Scalzi interrupts saying “Wikipedia.” Will asks Mike what techniques he uses, and he responds with card playing advice “Don't play the cards, play the players,” and he will assign weights to information based on whom it may be coming from and his awareness of them in the past. He tries to formulate useful questions that will reveal what may actually be going on. Eric says that his 3rd rule is “Double check what you think you know” and if you find yourself using paraphrases or generalities then make sure you can document what you're saying in their words, and if you can't don't do it. His publisher only had one criticism of what he wrote, which he had difficulty getting rid of because it was such a great turn of phrase. John says that in cases where you are doing something for rhetorical effect you can be persuasive, but when you do that you must be clear that you are not actually saying things that are so just because you so strongly believe in them. A trap that fools people of all levels of effective communication and competencies, brings up Dunning-Kruger effect. Mike says that his impression is that people don't want you to be free of a point of view, that they want you to disclose them so they can predict it. Will says that if your biases are on record, at least they're known. He asks if Eric's publisher has given him any feedback on his controversial stances. He says that his publisher has been standing well away from it, and has done it well. He thinks that authors are in a somewhat strange position because they can express themselves clearly as an individual, that it's harder if you have yourself a relationship with a professional association that might limit your expression. Laura says Tor has been similarly supportive to Eric's experience with Baen, and were uninterested in their author's interests and political agendas. Scalzi can't imagine any of his publishers trying to rein in his personal and political public speech, because he's not an employee. When writing at a newspaper he was limited somewhat to what could go into a family-friendly publication, but otherwise not very. Will asks Mike if he's ever gotten off-the-record type things from publisher employees. He says yes, as recently as last year got a tip that he was able to independently verify. Scalzi says that if you get out in front of something that turns out to not be true, admitting that right out that you were wrong about something gains you lots of credit. Names the incident where there was a sock puppet claiming to be him that Mike published on and then corrected when John repudiated the commenter.
Question about navigating safety and privacy issues, threats of violence and doxxing, etc. John says that for him there's an extension of the dilemma of reporting identifying information about people to verify them while exposing them at the same time, which is magnified now when the context is global compared to local like a newspaper. When he knows that he's talking about someone who's not as public a participant in the world as he is, he takes care not to really closely identify that person while still responding to them. That there is a responsibility of public figures to use discretion in the service of private individuals. Laura says disadvantaged peoples are less safe, and more statistically likely to be harassed and stalked and so forth, and they want to be part of the community and the conversation, but also have a need to be private and kept safe from those kinds of repercussions.
Question asking about advice for new or more fragile authors who feel compelled to write about controversial topics. Eric's is “Do it!” John says there's an article from an RWA publication warning people to not do it, and John thought that was terrible advice, particularly to tell a primarily female publication's audience that they should be quiet in the face of controversy! At the end of the day, he says that the question is are you requited to be silent because you are in the stream of commerce, and the answer is No, the fact that you write fiction for an audience does not define you, and that no person should be enjoined not to participate in the public life of our world because of their job. That that makes the world worse, because the fearless tend to be idiots. “Tragedy of the Commons” says another panelist. Eric says he's been a Socialist in America his whole life and the best protection he's had is to be open about it, because it makes it impossible for someone to leverage him on it. You may lose readers because of it, but you'll probably pick up as many because of it at the same time.
Question of if you make a mistake and don't delete it you are leaving misinformation out there. John says no situation is the same, sometimes it makes more sense to remove it, sometimes it makes more sense to update and flag it as false. Mike says he has yanked an entire post because he found out that the person he'd based it on had given him completely contradictory information regarding an incident from a different trusted source.
Laura closes about how we need people of good will standing up and sharing their thoughts and feelings with thought and openness to other perspectives and an awareness of real people being on the other side of the screen. Eric closes with most controversies tend to get overblown really quickly and stepping back and getting perspective is an underutilzied tool. Says he tries when he finishes composing something that may be controversial he tries to sit on it for a night. John's final statement is “write what you need to write.” Mike's last statement is that it's interesting that agreement does not always resolve conflict.”