Saturday, March 8, 2014

Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?

I've taken off the Hugo nominee pin that I've worn proudly on my lapel since my Doctor Who episode, The Doctor's Wife, won the Hugo in September 2012, and, for now, I've put it away.
It isn't Neil Gaiman's fault that people worship him. Heck, before deconstructing his reaction post, which I find highly manipulative, let me say that I love his work. American Gods, Anansi Boys, Stardust, and The Graveyard Book, just to name recent pieces, each stunned me in their own ways as I read and re-read them. I intend to read more of his work in the future, because he is an extraordinary storyteller, and I count myself as lucky to be able to read his tales. That said, my interest in power and discourse, especially online, had led me into his blog writing on Ross and the Hugos, and I have a few thoughts. Bear with me.

I've always been a little uncomfortable with the way fan-groups worship their creative heroes because of the bleed. Our love of their work bleeds over into the love of the creator himself or herself, and then the words of the creator start to carry a kind of unimpeachable weight. When it reaches the level of Gaiman, or, say, Joss Whedon and the like, it must be very hard to maintain any kind of perspective.

Which brings me to Neil Gaiman's reaction to l'affaire Hugo (it's so much more interesting in French). To refresh: Loncon's chairs asked Neil to ask his friend Jonathan Ross to host the Hugos. Ross said yes. There was a twitter backlash. Ross stepped down. Then there was a backlash to the backlash. And here we are.

Gaiman took it personally. Who wouldn't? Not only was Ross doing this as a favor to his friend, but Gaiman feels he knows better. Ross is, in private, he tells us, a great guy, a close friend, and to have large chunks of his world - fandom - reject a friend is hurtful.

But Gaiman's own words and experiences suggest that Ross is, in fact, someone who decides which boundaries he is going to respect and which he'll disregard, because he thinks he knows best - either because the person will eventually like it, or because the "scene" requires it.  One of Gaiman's defenses of Ross as a good guy came from his documentary "Search for Steve Ditko," about trying to find a legendary hero of the Comics world.

Together, Gaiman and Ross travel to Ditko's office building, get his phone number, and Ross calls him. Ditko says he doesn't want to see him (that's a pretty firm boundary). Ross and Gaiman go up anyway without their camera crew, then come back down to report that they had coffee and that Ditko was very nice. However, they also report that Ditko now wishes he didn't have his name on the office door. This is a man who wants to be left alone. Here's the telling exchange, just after the phone call.
JR: He essentially told me to fuck off. HAHAHAHAHAHAH. but in the most polite and firm manner I have ever encountered.
JR: Ok, shall we go and knock on his door.
NG: You want to?
JR: Yeah, Not with the crew, but let's go up there to see, but let's do it.
NG: Ok
JR: Ok
JR: Me and Neil are going to upset him, but we've got to do it, haven't we Neil
NG: I am Robin to his Batman.
Does that look to you like Jonathan Ross is a man who respects boundaries, even clearly expressed ones? "Me and Neil are going to upset him." Neil goes along with it.

There's more. One of the pieces reacting to the l'affaire Hugo came from the New Statesman. It defended Ross, accused people of bullying him (and sparked my first post), and generally, as Radish Reviews noted, punched down. It was also, as Radish Reviews uncovered, written by Neil Gaiman's goddaughter, though she never disclosed her connection (this, I feel, is an unforgiveable lapse for the editors and the author. Opinion pieces are fine. I write a lot of them. Connections must be disclosed, which is why in my last post I noted I play music with Seanan's girlfriend). At any rate, Gaiman's goddaughter was able to get an interesting quote.
“What was peculiar about the attacks was they had constructed an ad hominem straw man to attack, who was sexist, sizeist, hates women and likes making everyone feel bad,” said Gaiman. “It doesn’t bear any resemblance to Jonathan. While he has occasionally said things that make you go ‘Oh god, your mouth opened and that thing came out’, he is a consummate professional.”
This paragraph contains inherent contradictions, contradictions that Gaiman delves into in his blog post.
The weirdest bit was, I understood some of the worry; I'd had it myself, 25 years ago, when Jonathan and I had first met, and he asked me and Dave McKean to be on his chat show to talk about VIOLENT CASES. I said "No, you make fun of people. This is comics. It matters to me. I don't want you making fun of it."
That's not the weird bit, that's the bit that's supposed to help you understand that people were genuinely worried, not staging it to get attention, not doing it as sour grapes, not following some agenda - genuinely worried, just like Neil was. What they didn't have was Gaiman's access and power. Ross invited Gaiman to watch him film another interview, showing him as that professional. But when Ross was confronted by angry tweets, he reacted by calling a random fan (we're not even at Stross or Nielsen Hayden or McGuire level) stupid.

Ross was under no obligation to be kind and reassuring in the face of the twitter storm. But he had the power to do so and he made a different choice. And I don't really blame him, because as Gaiman says:
Twitterstorms are no fun when people are making up things about you or insulting you for things you didn't do or think or say. When scores of people from a group that you consider yourself a part of are shouting at you, it's incredibly upsetting, no matter who you are. And these things spill over and get bigger -- I was saddened to learn that Jane Goldman, Jonathan's wife, one of the gentlest, kindest people I know (and the person who, with Jonathan, got me onto Twitter, back in December 2009) had deleted her Twitter account because of all this.
Yes, this is a problem with Twitter. On Thursday some random person named UnkleBob, probably English based on his accent, told me to fuck off. Actually, he said, "Fuck off Dave, you gimp." Man, that was hurtful. So I told him that the next ad hominem would result in a block, so it was his choice - we could dialogue or I could just block him. And this is the great thing about Twitter - you can just turn people off. If only that worked with my neighbors (Not really! I have the world's greatest neighbors. Three of them own snow-blowers. I love you neighbors. I was just making a point about the online vs analog world). UnkleBob and I had a pretty decent conversation after that, even if we didn't persuade the other.
I was seriously disappointed in the people, some of whom I know and respect, who stirred other people up to send invective, obscenities and hatred Jonathan's way over Twitter (and the moment you put someone's @name into a tweet, you are sending it directly to that person), much of it the kind of stuff that they seemed to be worried that he might possibly say at the Hugos, unaware of the ironies involved.
Disappointed. That's a nicely-chosen word. It's one that parents use with their kids. I'm not mad at you, I'm disappointed. Do try to do better next time, you don't want to make daddy disappointed.

I guess I'd like to know who he thinks stirred up people. I see people writing their feelings and opinions, expressing their discontent with their choices, liking to the @wossy account. Neil linked to this post, which had a guy (with 120 followers) calling Ross a "noted gratingly fatuous bell end." That's not very nice. Again, to the New Statesman piece and Neil's godddaughter.
A vocal contingent resorted to petty name-calling on the Internet. Does calling someone a “grating fatuous bellend” not count as bullying if your subject is famous? I call bullshit. Does saying horrible things about someone because you think they might possibly say horrible things about you make you the better person? In this tirade about insults and slights, nasty bullies with little self-awareness recast themselves as the victim.
I've already talked about my perception of bullying and power here, though I accept there are other ways to cast the situation. And once again I am appalled that this is someone deeply implicated in the affair writing as if they are an outside observer. At any rate, I can't believe Gaiman is talking about @TalkyMeat and his 120 followers, when he says "people, some of whom I know and respect, who stirred other people."
I sympathise with anyone who felt that Jonathan wasn't going to make an appropriate Hugos host, and with anyone who spoke about it to the convention committee, but do not believe a campaign aimed at vilifying Jonathan personally was wise or kind. And for those who thought that making this happen was a way to avoid SF and the Hugos appearing in the tabloids, I'd point to the Streisand effect, with a shake of the head.
There was no "campaign." There was a Twitterstorm. It upset Goldman, as Neil notes above, but again as covered in the last post, Goldman's specific complaints about Seanan and her daughter are unfounded. Neil knows this too, given his approximately 8 zillion followers to whom he cannot possibly respond. Maybe he thinks Seanan's 12K is like a chat around the dinner table.

But here's the real thing - Neil is saying that the only appropriate way to respond negatively is to speak to the convention committee, to follow procedure, to be polite. That's a fine policy for people with power and access. It's not how groups of people actually effect change, with one-on-one conversations, each one with the powerful person saying, "thanks for your comments." Change happens with groups. Sometimes groups function as mobs, bullies, or twitterstorms. But if you don't have power, you have to organize.

I think the process of organizing online, rather than forming an "angry mob" (see previous post), is still in development. But I see this again and again: A group of people get angry, legitimately or no, express it online, and the other side tries to invert the power dynamics by claiming victimization, legitimately or no. Much as every war is expressed as a defensive one, every online disagreement results in competing claims of victim. Pay attention to the power dynamics, are people punching up or punching down.

So let's sum up. Gaiman believes that Ross is a great guy, a professional, and is the wronged party here.   Gaiman is really disappointed in people who expressed their anger publicly rather than going through channels. He has, sadly, taken off his Hugo pin as a way of making you all feel bad for disappointing him. It's paternalistic and manipulative.

Moreover, the belief that Ross was a wildly inappropriate choice is supported by Gaiman's own experiences as he reports. He has personally witnessed Ross ignoring boundaries in order to upset someone - because he wants to, because it would be funny, because it would make for better TV. Is this someone who would make you, absent Neil's personal experience with Ross, feel safe as a Hugo guest?

So in the end, to quote a friend of mine, Gaiman is asking his fans, his often worshipful fans, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

I guess I'll go with my lying eyes this time.