Priorities: Justice vs. Safety in Convention Culture

One comment I made in one of my recent posts that has attracted a certain amount of skepticism was my endorsement of a con culture that focuses on safety rather than justice in conflict resolutions. “How can you have safety without justice?” is one typical response. “So justice is a bad thing now?” is another.

Well, justice is most assuredly not a bad thing.

But justice in the sense of criminal justice or what we might call retributive justice is not the most pressing concern of a convention’s code of conduct, nor should it be the focus of a convention’s safety or security team.

Let me put it to you this way: how many comic, literary, or media conventions have you been to or heard of, that you would trust with the weighty responsibility of meting out justice? How many of them do you think have the people, expertise, or time and resources to serve out justice in a meaningful sense?

Or to put it another way: imagine you’re in charge of hiring a mall security officer.

You have two equally qualified candidates, alike in all respects except for their answer to the question, “What do you see as the primary function of this job?”

One of them says “To punish criminals, wicked people, and evildoers.”

The other says “To keep mall guests, employees, and property safe.”

Assuming you have to take one and not the other, which one of those individuals do you hire to guard your mall?

If you take the first one, I can assure you: you’re not going to be in charge of hiring for mall security for much longer. Because that is not the job.

Providing safety is a necessary step in almost every human enterprise. It may never truly be complete (safer rather than absolutely safe is the goal), but  providing justice is a never-ending battle and something that requires highly dedicated institutions as well as an individual commitment, and even then it often goes horribly wrong.

I mean, when’s the last time you heard about a gross miscarriage of safety or a travesty of safety?

I certainly don’t mind when a convention has a commitment to justice. My “home convention” of WisCon has such a commitment. But I expect such a convention to be reflected by a striving towards justice, not dispensing it. In recent years, WisCon learned a valuable lesson in the folly of attempting—as laypeople with limited resources—to apply principles of jurisprudence and criminal investigation in resolving conflicts between people. It’s having witnessed this (and part of it up close, as part of WisCon’s ConCom) that informs my view here.

People who are saying that a convention should never act on a complaint without performing a serious investigation, weighing evidence, and having a finding of facts culminating in a verdict in a sentence are, whether they know it or not, advocating for one of two possibilities: an endless succession of unqualified kangaroo courts or a world where conventions never act on complaints. Neither approach actually serves justice. Neither approach does anything for safety.

Trying to find a middle ground (or create a workable “convention court” system) would place an undue burden on conventions, raising the costs in money and time investment, and for what? To satisfy the aggrieved sense of fairness of random people on the internet, most of whom will continue to side with their friends and assume that any result other than the one that vindicates their own biases is a sign that the system was rigged anyway?

No thank you.

I’ll tell you one thing that’s true about this latest case and the one I referenced regarding WisCon: as far as I could tell, neither party ever really disputed the basic idea that it was a good idea for the two of them to avoid each other. Like, that was accepted as just plain a good idea, no matter what version of events you believe or what viewpoint you subscribe to.

In a case like that, what is there to investigate? “Feelings aren’t actionable!” cry the people who haven’t noticed that there was no action in the sense they mean it. It’s an interpersonal conflict resolved via boundary mediation, not a criminal complaint resolved via punishment.

A convention’s commitment to safety means they will try first to prevent conflict, then to diffuse it, then to resolve it. Punishment, if it happens, is incidental. Even if an action is interpreted as punishing, the so-called punishment is not the point. The harm reduction or risk mitigation is.

When James Frenkel was initially provisionally banned from WisCon, to name another case, the outcry was not because he was not being punished enough. Few people wanted him punished more. The concern was safety… not vengeance, not retribution, and not punishment.

When the convention elected to permanently ban him instead, this represented (in my opinion, based on arguments made at the time) a shift from “What punishment is appropriate for this transgression?” (a criminal justice-based approach) to “What action is necessary to ensure the safety of our members?” (a safety-based approach).

I don’t want to go to a convention that thinks it can force people to be better people through behavioral modification, which is the higher goal of punishment, per se. I don’t want to contribute my time, money, or energy towards a convention that is spending its resources in the foolish pursuit of creating a workable parallel to a criminal justice system. I understand the impulse to go, “Wait, there was no investigation? No trial?”, but man, no one actually wants to go down that path: “In the media convention circuit, people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the Public Safety Team who investigate crime and the ConCom who prosecute the offenders.” Is that what we want our conventions to spend their time on?


Again, I say: no, thank you.

Conventions have a duty to provide a measure of safety. They have neither the duty nor even the means to provide justice. Trying to act as a court system is how they wind up with uneven punishments, complaints that stretch on for years, etc.

Your average fandom convention at any one time has got not quite enough expertise, resources, money, logistical support, and volunteer-hours to actually throw a convention in the first place… and then, amazingly, against all odds, they do it anyway. You’re not going to get all that and a criminal court system, too.