Mar 7, 2014

The Mess That is the 2014 Hugo Awards

I wasn't going to blog about this. It seems like everyone remotely associated with the SFF community has thrown their two cents in, and I didn't want to leap to conclusions.

But this is too important an event in an industry and fandom I care deeply about to not record my feelings, so I can look back years from now and say "Thoughts, I had them!"

On March 1st, Loncon (the 2014 Worldcon), announced over Twitter that Jonathan Ross had agreed to host the 2014 Hugo Awards. The background to this is that the co-chair of Loncon contacted Neil Gaiman and asked if he would invite Ross to host the awards. Being a huge SFF fan and comic creator, Ross agreed, and even waived his fee for such an appearance. Worth noting is that Farah Mendelsohn resigned from the Loncon committee as a result of the choice, and tweeted about it before the announcement was made. So it should have been clear to the Loncon chairs that Ross might be a controversial choice for a host, and that either they might want to consider an alternative, or at least prepare both him and themselves for some negative comments.

To say people reacted badly is something of an understatement. Tweets came in fast, criticizing Loncon for their decision and raising concerns about Ross' style of humour, as well as taking him to task for what he may say on the night. These fears were based on his past behaviour and propensity for using material that pokes fun at women.

In the end, Ross stepped down. His wife deleted her Twitter account. And the wrong people are being labelled as the "leaders of a bullying campaign" against their family.

The stories you'll read alternate between depicting SFF fandom as a bunch of self-absorbed children, too precious about their community to let people be involved if they don't count as a "real fan", bullying people off of Twitter, and others asking everyone involved to be a bit more level-headed and consider exactly what we say, pointing out the errors in the mainstream media placing blame in the wrong places, and generally being disheartened that this mess came about at all.

This Storify lists some of the more relevant tweets in chronological order.

I've been mulling over where exactly I stand in all this. Honestly, my opinion has shifted so often as I've learned new things, I'm not even entirely sure what the right opinion is at all.

I do know that Loncon, as an event, has taken some damage. They fucked up, let's be honest. They've admitted as much themselves. By not consulting the committee properly and listening to the dissent within their own ranks, they barged ahead to announce a celebrity host and I think ultimate responsibility for this whole depressing mess lies with them. Maybe if they'd made things clear to Ross that there's a hugely divisive split on matters relating to the treatment of women and minorities, he wouldn't have reacted so badly, or perhaps would not have accepted the invitation. Certainly, there was a lot more they could have done to address the concerns as they were raised. As it was, they remained mostly quiet, only clarifying that Ross is a SFF fan, and that he was volunteering his time.

Jonathan Ross has been a significant public figure for some time. He knows the entertainment industry, and he knows he's done things in the past that have created controversy. I believe that the more prominent a public figure, the more responsibility they have to carry themselves professionally when dealing with a prospective audience. Instead of engaging in conversation and addressing concerns, Ross became defensive, and chose to insult people, fanning the flames against him. He should know better.

Jane Goodman took Seanan Maguire to task for ignoring her daughter. What's overlooked in the media is that Maguire apologised for missing the tweets directed at her, and engaged in civil discussion about the issues at hand. While she had a very emotional response to Loncon's announcement, she handled criticism against her professionally and unfortunately the fact that their disagreement ended on good terms, it has been completely overlooked in the media. The fact that Jane Goodman has since deactivated her Twitter account has only made this look worse.

You know, I understand that it's not easy to receive criticism. And that being attacked and mocked is painful. But that's part of being in the public eye. And responding to such comments properly is part of being an adult. This isn't the schoolyard, where you can win an argument by being the most angry person involved.

Do I think the critics on Twitter were justified in their concerns? I honestly don't know. I don't know enough about Ross' more recent work to guess what material he would likely have used at the awards. But people clearly had concerns. A lot of people. Enough that any sensible person should have stopped before answering and asked themselves if maybe there was something to it.

Of course, one thing which I haven't seen addressed, regardless of how understandable or justified these concerns were, is how the media view the manner in which these concerns were addressed. Huge numbers within the SFF community turned on Ross. It drew a lot of attention and, deservedly or not, made us all look bad. Of course we're all entitled to express our fears and our concerns, just as we're entitled to have a safe place in which to celebrate the best of our fandom, which is what Worldcon, and the Hugo Awards, are supposed to be.

But it pays to take a breath and consider how the manner in which we raise these issues. Shouting and hurling accusations may get attention, and it may even get us what we want, this time. But the next time we have a serious issue to discuss, I'm genuinely worried that this mess will be held up as an excuse not to listen, that we'll just turn on anyone, for any reason.

I don't know what we can do to prevent it. Loncon needs a new Hugo Awards host, and there's going to be a ton of pressure and baggage attached to that. Future Worldcon committees are going to have their actions scrutinised for signs of a similar cock-up.

I blame Loncon for fucking up. I blame Jonathan Ross for failing to act in a professional, compassionate manner. I blame anyone who let that knee-jerk reaction to the announcement cause them to lash out and attack Ross or his family. I blame people who are so caught up in who to blame they can't see that everyone involved is coming out of this the worse for the experience.

It's a sad, sorry mess.


  1. Great post, Paul. Not enough people are putting the blame where I feel it should go, which is to say Everywhere. Nobody did the right thing, nobody looks good, and this is gonna hurt everyone for a while.

    Frickin Yay.

  2. I disagree on one point: you assert that "this is not the playground," and this is the internet we're talking about. It's worse than a playground because people think they have anonymity!

  3. # And the wrong people are being labelled as the "leaders of a bullying campaign" against their family.

    This is entirely true, but people claiming that Ms Maguire was targeted because of her gender or sexuality. Ms Maguire became the focus because Charles Stross said she'd be angry at Mr Ross being chosen, then she turns up and is angry, then Mr Ross's daughter engages with her, this makes her effectively the whole event in one person, even though she is at no point the leader or the instigator. It was probably the reply from Mr Ross's daughter that finally put Ms Maguire into the frame.

    I don't see that Ross was that unprofessional. When you suddenly find yourself under unexpected mass attack, you're going to hit back, that's just human nature. Asking us to not do that is asking us to be more than professionals, it's asking us to be angels.

    Behind all events like this is a culture of anger and high-handedness (and often outright bigotry) in SF that many people seem not to see. A few years ago someone called for me to be beheaded over a comment that had been misunderstood when I asked it at a panel (It did come out wrong, but the question is, is it appropriate to call for someone's murder, whatever they've asked?) After that I found myself targetted on people's blogs, and I discovered that many others had had similar experiences.

    In the four years I've been involved in the community I've experienced a barrage of hate and unpleasantness, and it's all been about my race and gender. You can see in tweets about Ross that many people do not object to him as an indivdual who has said/done questionable things, they actively mention is race and gender (and sometimes sexuality and that he's cis). I've seen this community support death-threats or calls for writers to have acid thrown in their face because of things they wrote, yet now an off-color joke that's not even happened yet is the end of the world?

    This community allows, and even supports, attacks on members when those attacks are coming from a 'progressive' platform. This makes no-one safe, because it allows grudges to be settled by looking through someone's work until you find something in there that you can build a case around (which you always can) and then denouncing them and getting a shitstorm going. I've seen some remarkable interpretations of things I've written.

    In seeking to make a better community for all, we've managed to create something akin to the cultural revolution, and these outbursts are where the outside world gets to see that.

    Unless the community really commits itself to treating everyone with a basic degree of respect, and views its members (including those who happen to be white/male/cis/straight) as either individuals, or as human beings, rather that members of groups who are at war, then this is just going to keep happening and getting worse. Sadly, I don't think the community can do that any more. Too much radical theory about priviledge and patriarchy is now in the mix, and anything that anyone does or says is seen through these prisms. I think a lot of people in the community simply can't see others as full human beings any more, they can't see them in terms of the things we all have in common, only in terms of the things that divide us.

    This isn't Ms Maguires, or anyone else's fault. This is all our faults. We let ideology get out of hand, and it's harmed people. I see stuff being written by writers whom I once had regard for, and I wonder if I could go back in a time-machine and say to them "one day you will write this", what would the reaction of their younger selves be?

    Shouting and hurling accusations has been the conduct of this community for a long while now, people are too practiced at it to ever give it up.

  4. Darn, there's a bit missing in the opening line of my post. It should say that: 'people claiming that Ms Maguire was targeted because of her gender or sexuality are also seeing things that aren't there'.


    1. Thanks for commenting, Colum. You've given me some things to think about, regarding how the SFF community can often react to things they disagree with. Honestly, I see that attitude a lot, not just in SFF, and it scares me.

      As for Ross' reaction, I maintain that if you can advise an author to not respond to a bad review, you can certainly expect that a person with Ross' experience being in the public eye should know to let himself calm down before responding to angry commenters. Or at least, to accept that there are consequences to snapping back against them.