Friday, July 3, 2020

An Open Letter to Writers' Organizations

As usual, I’m a bit late here, but I wanted to get my thoughts together about the recent International Thriller Writers controversy. Not even ITW so much, as what this debacle says about writers groups in general.

Writers’ organizations such as ITW, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, etc. do not require two houses of Congress and a president to set standards for membership. There is no need to content ourselves with saying how something is terrible and needs to stop, the horror, the horror, then install window dressing and walk away. It’s time to establish who our organizations and events belong to. Consequences are in order.

Understanding that lawyers would have to fine tune this, here’s a proposal for organization membership and event attendance:
  • A Code of Conduct for all members, clearly stated and easily found on the web site. The Code will cover inappropriate sexual behavior, as well as racist, homophobic, transphobic, or religious discrimination. The Code shall make clear this is not a bar to civil discussion of such topics. Context always matters.
  • Conference attendees must check a box to certify they have read and agree to abide by the Code of Conduct before the system can accept their registration.
  • Credible complaints will be forwarded to a standing committee on conduct, which may do any of the following after an investigation:
    • Nothing. The committee will inform the complainant of the reasons why. (Example: “You became uncomfortable after finding yourself involved in a discussion of the invective used in James Ellroy’s works describing life in the 50s. No one called you, or anyone else, any of these names. No sanctions forthcoming.”)
    • Probation. Prohibits the accused from attending future conferences for a prescribed period of time. They are still a member and may participate in other activities until the probation period is over. Probation can be conditional (“on probation until the matter is disposed of”).
    • Suspension. The accused may not attend any events, nor enjoy any of the benefits of membership, for a prescribed period of time.
    • Banishment. Permanently bars the accused from any aspect of the organization. This should apply only in extreme circumstances, though repeat offenders should also be subject to permanent banishment.
  • Members who are on probation, suspended, or banned will have their names posted on the group’s web site. The reasons will remain private, but their names will be available for those who may attend a conference to which this person still has access, so people know who to look out for. The Code of Conduct each attendee must acknowledge prior to registration will clearly include this provision so there are no misunderstandings.

It’s no longer enough to know there are bad actors out there and maybe they’ll face some arbitrary consequences if they misbehave. The consequences have to be clear and public. It does little good to ban someone from ThrillerFest for sexual misconduct only to keep their name secret so they may prey on others at Left Coast Crime or Bouchercon.

This isn’t about punishing the guilty. It’s about keeping everyone else safe. Not just good thoughts and boilerplate platitudes so they’ll feel safe. Taking action to actually make them safer. I’m a six-foot-one-inch, 240-pound straight white man. I have never, not once, felt anything but safe at a conference. Everyone needs to be able to feel that way. To paraphrase Harry Bosch, “We’re all safe, or no one is safe.”

1 comment:

TG Wolff said...

I like your thinking on this. It comes from a replace of respecting others, and that includes for their differences. I am a 5'0", XXX lb straight female. I don't have a #metoo story and that's because of the thousands of good men and women I have lived, worked, and played with. It only takes 1 to create a bad story, it takes everyone to create a good one.