Why safe spaces for social awkwardness are worrying

On Facebook, a friend just shared a link about the idea that Geekdom being a place where socially shunned males are free to be themselves is a radical rewriting of history. that erases women. The link is true as far as it goes; there are many many influential female Geeks that Tauriq Moosa missed out including Verity Lambert, Grace Hopper, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. But there are two other extremely important points I want to make.

Geekdom is thought of by some as the only place where socially shunned males can be safe and be themselves. I am a socially awkward male geek who sometimes has all the tact of a rhino in a china shop (a bull in a china shop turning out not to be that bad). But I don’t want a pure safe space simply because I’m awkward and mess up. When I mess up I want to know about it so I can try to do better next time. I do want somewhere I can share interests and a sense of fun, and that it has its own rules is a good thing. But that’s a different issue.

It’s hugely different because the single easiest way for someone to hide being deliberately harmful is behind a veneer of awkwardness.

Don’t think it could happen in geek circles? We’re going to talk about two alpha-geeks from the 60s. A married couple, in fact. Walter Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley. (OK, who spotted the hook in the first paragraph?) In geek circles, Marion Zimmer Bradley was a famous and prolific SF and fantasy author, ran several fanzines, gave numerous authors their start in her various anthology collections, and much much more. Together they were founders of the Eastern chapter of the SCA – and Walter went on post-divorce to become an extremely influential coin collector. They were both highly influential members of various deep subcultures and put a lot of work in.

Walter Breen died in prison for child abuse. Marion admitted helping him commit and cover up his crimes in court.

***TRIGGER WARNING – child abuse, child rape – the links in the following paragraph are detailed about some aspects of the abuse. I’m going to talk about how and why.***

Marion was also almost certainly a child abuser herself; her daughter is a poet and wrote vividly and compellingly on the subject and her son says similar things in prose. But it’s Walter Breen and the Breendoggle that are important here.

The 1960s geek culture in which the two moved was one which held the ideal that anyone should be able to be themselves. One in which precisely the ideal of any shunned people being free to be themselves was upheld above all things.

The Breendoggle itself is about the quesion “Should we have the right to exclude a member of NAMBLA with a previous criminal conviction for child rape who many are saying is still trying to have sex with kids?” Which, if the space is supposed to be one where “socially shunned males can be save and be themselves” is one question where the answer is “We shouldn’t have that right.”

But no one would take it that far? Seriously? I mean, come on!

Walter Breen was blackballed – and it was overturned and left a split in fandom. Did you think I picked this example accidentally?

This is literally what is being asked for. Geek culture to return to a code of ethics that enabled predators like Walter Breen – direct quotes about him at the time included “We’re all kooks. Walter is just a little kookier than the rest of us. Where will it all end if we start rejecting people because they’re kooky?” and “I don’t want Walter around T—-, but if we do such a horrible thing as expelling him, I’ll quit fandom.”

As a socially awkward geek I know what the cost has historically been. And no! My awkwardness being pointed out in a ways that sometimes makes me uncomfortable is not worth that or anything like that.


Post-script 1:

The “Absolutely safe to be yourself” position is one in which all rules constraining people are burned down.  The one Sir Thomas Moore opposes in the A Man For all Seasons below.

But although Moore is right about Roper, sometimes the rules are bad. Hideous damage was done by the rules that were rejected by the libertines of the 60s. Are bad rules as harmful as no rules? It depends how bad the laws are; both are terrible. Both empower predators in different ways, and both lead to people getting badly hurt through no fault of their own (whether fitted to procrustean beds or exploited through the law); the right solution is better rules. Fortunately on sexual ethics we have those now. (Libby-Anne’s Tale of Two Boxes is SFW and trigger-safe).

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

But not everyone can see the way forward. Sometimes when confronted by rules you know to be bad nuking the site from orbit and hoping that people will build something better from the wreckage is all you can see to do. And very occasionally it’s the best course of action.

For all my instincts are conservative (and I mean that in almost every possible way including the political) I’m very much aware that despite my privileged position there is a lot in this world that needs changing for the better. And any time I disagree with protestors for being too forceful or demanding too much too soon and not being polite enough I remember Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Post-script 2:

The potentially triggering detailed link about the Breendoggle is fascinating in a very dark way. It’s written by someone in a society that has thrown out existing sexual codes of conduct because they are obviously harmful. And despite having no moral framework to do so he’s reasoning himself into a position where he understands paedophila is wrong and trying to work out how to do something about it.

And if ever I need a case showing the worth of a moral code while also demonstrating that people can reach for a better one than they hold, there’s a good example.

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One thought on “Why safe spaces for social awkwardness are worrying

  1. I wonder if it ever crosses the minds of the Breensters (for lack of a better term) that hiding behind the “socially awkward” label might be making it WORSE for those who are awkward but harmless. Because of too many examples of harmful people (like Breen) who tried to pass themselves off as merely awkward– so that awkwardness itself becomes a danger signal.

    And so nobody wins: the harmful slip through the cracks, the awkward stay awkward, awkwardness itself (also known as being human) becomes pathologized, and we all become that much more vulnerable to the smooth, charming variety of predator. (You know, the opposite of awkward kind.)

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