Many individual moderators and bloggers may be savvy to the difficulties of creating and preserving a space for open, constructive conversation, but this is obviously not the case in the larger public sphere. Over the last nine years in the United States, extremist speech has proliferated throughout many areas of the internet as well as the public sphere, and the major "news" media have come to love extremist speech (as long as it's right-wing), especially when its racist or homophobic. There have always been right-wing extremists in the United States, but they've seldom been allowed to dominate public discourse as they do now.
One might argue that the reason right-wing extremists are now dominating public discourse is that the news media have decided that right-wing extremism serves the important functions of distorting our sense of the political spectrum and drowning out the conversations we would otherwise be having. Certainly that's how it's working for the larger political picture. How often, for instance, do journalists engage in consideration of the human rights issues that were so pressing in the run-up to the last presidential election-- issues that the Obama Administration have refused to confront? Or the dire environmental crisis that the extremists persist in denying? Or the chicanery in the financial sector that has thrown millions of people out of work and into poverty? Countering ridiculous disinformation is an endless treadmill of distraction.
My take on the politics of discourse in both the public and the blogosphere has shaped my sense of the impact the Elizabeth Moon controversy may have on WisCon 35. Over the years, WisCon's concom has helped to create and preserve a space for open, constructive conversation. Their success in doing this has made WisCon the unique event and place that it is. Creating and preserving a space for open, constructive conversation is not the concom's only role, but it is surely an important one. And so as a regular attendee of WisCon, I read with care the WisCon 35 co-chairs' statement to the WisCon Community, addressing the subject of Elizabeth Moon's post, in the latest issue of e-Cube e-Cube. They write:
We know that opinions are not changed by running away from them, but instead by engaging with them, challenging their assumptions, sharing knowledge, seeking understanding, and by lively and candid discourse. And we think that provides a pretty good short description of a typical WisCon.Extremist speech like Elizabeth Moon's is threatening and harmful in itself to individuals, as the co-chairs acknowledge. But what the co-chairs do not acknowledge is that extremist speech is extremely detrimental when it is allowed into particular discourses. Many people at WisCon have over the last several years worked diligently to make WisCon inclusive not only of those who are othered in the larger culture but also in its discourse. Making WisCon's discourse more fully inclusive means finally beginning to move beyond the same-old bingo card exchanges that go on constantly in the culture at large, to a different sort of conversational framework that enables truly open conversation. I don't know Elizabeth Moon personally, and I don't know what she has said to the concom to make them believe that allowing WisCon discourse to be dominated by the issue of her ignorance will generate a conversation in any way worth the tax, but judging by her ignorant, extremist post (which is all we have to go on at the moment), it will be like trying to have a "conversation" with a Fox "News" pundit.
One might say that WisCon excels at the difficult conversation -- and sometimes the hardest conversation is with an idol who turns out to be human. We have begun addressing our difference of views with Ms. Moon directly, and will continue to do so over the coming months and at the con itself. We hope you will join us in this difficult conversation.
The fact that Elizabeth Moon summarily and indiscriminately erased every comment to her post, which she at the same time left standing, argues that even that limited form of conversation is unwelcome to her. On the basis of that act, the prospects for even "difficult conversation" are dim-- even if she does, belatedly, issue an apology (as Nisi Shawl hopes she will do).
Imagine if the concom had invited someone who had spouted off a Larry Summers-type remark about women being genetically handicapped at math and science. Would the concom then have decided to hold a fresh round of Feminism 101 panels to counter it-- thus reducing WisCon to being like all the other cons where the only feminist-interest panels one can find are of the Feminism 101 variety?
Here is a more general question: is treating an outburst of extremism as an attempt at dialogue a moderate response? Where, I would ask the "moderate," does one draw the line? What if Elizabeth Moon had said that she agreed with the Obama Administration's decision to assassinate a US citizen currently living abroad? Or that, building on her claim that what Muslims believe "unfits them for citizenship," she had announced that she agreed with the extremists who favor taking citizenship away from Muslim citizens of the US? Or if she had said she thought all citizens and residents who practice Islam ought to be expelled from the US or put into camps, as Japanese Americans were after the bombing of Pearl Harbor?
I raise the hypothetical question of where the line should be drawn because it strikes me that part of the difficulty here is that the WisCon concom apparently lacks a policy for dealing with extremist speech. In such a situation, the co-chairs, who speak for the concom and whose job tends more toward putting out fires rather than preventing them, seemingly have little recourse but to "disavow" the objectionable "elements of Ms. Moon's post." The primary definition of "disavow" is "to deny responsibility."** And denying responsibility for Elizabeth Moon's extremist speech is all, apparently, that they feel empowered to do in this situation-- that and putting the best face on the dissension, hurt, and distrust that will likely result from Elizabeth Moon's appearance at the con. Granted, they are in a tough spot. But perhaps the lack of an organizational policy giving the co-chairs other options in this situation would not be so limiting if US culture at large had a clearer notion of the stakes involved with legitimizing extremist speech. I'm sure that like most people, they believe that meeting extremism "half way"-- that engaging with it-- is a constructive, moderate, and even "objective" response. This attitude goes a long way in explaining how it happens that we in the US are steeped in a culture that allows the farthest reaches of the right-wing to determine both the center (which is far to the right of what it was in the 1970s largely because people on even the moderate left of the political spectrum are not allowed to be audible in the public sphere ) as well as the issues of public discourse. An ad hoc response to extremism-- which is what the co-chairs found themselves making in this situation-- mirrors the practice of the mainstream media-- viz., to allow such extremists to dominate discourse and dictate which issues are discussed.
I'll confess I had high hopes for this WisCon. I was tremendously excited that Nisi Shawl would be a GoH. It's hard for me to look forward to Nisi's speech now, though, without wondering how the protest against Elizabeth Moon's speech will affect what should be a joyous occasion. Will there be anyone left in the ballroom to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Tiptree Awards? Just how will all of these disruptions play out? Without question, Elizabeth Moon's presence will cast a shadow over WisCon 35.
*For more about panels, see my article in the second volume of the WisCon Chronicles, "Whose romance? Whose revolution? The operations of race and gender in panel discourse at WisCon.")
**"Disavow" is an unfortunate word choice. I can't help but think of Freud's use of the word in theorizing the etiology of sexual fetish. It generally conveys the sense of having it both ways.And I really don't think that's what the co-chairs see themselves as doing.