Us vs. Them vs. Grow the Hell Up
I’m still not entirely sure what the hell happened last week. I know it started when someone forwarded a comment I made on Twitter a few weeks back to the SMOFs listserv. I talked about that some here.
To back up a bit, “SMOFs” refers to Secret Masters of Fandom. It was originally coined as a rather joking, self-deprecating term for the folks who work their asses off behind the scenes running conventions and such. The folks who won the bid to host NASFiC in Detroit for 2014? They’ll be smoffing nonstop for the next year to make that happen. (Congrats and good luck to them all, by the way!!!)
I spoke to a number of people about fandom and SMOFs and convention history and so on last week. Multiple conrunners referred to a siege mentality, a sense that the SMOFs are constantly under attack, creating a strong Us vs. Them mentality. Reading between the lines, I suspect that when I critiqued fandom’s lack of diversity by referencing a photo of Worldcon Con Chairs, that was enough for some people to assume I was “them,” one of the people who was out to get the SMOFs, destroy Worldcon, and retire to my secret moonbase where I’d pet my cat and practice twirling my mustache.
Whatever. But later in the week, Nick Mamatas posted a pic of a “SMOF ZONE” sign at Worldcon. I retweeted the pic with the question, “So, um, anyone know the story behind this sign at Worldcon?” and “To clarify, I know what SMOF stands for. I don’t see how a ‘SMOF ZONE’ sign is going to do anything but irritate folks.” Because, you know, if you’re worried about an Us vs. Them siege, then even if the sign was meant to be tongue-in-cheek — and I suspect it was — it’s probably not going to help matters.
This was enough to get me labelled a troll and accused once again of being out to destroy people.
Look, I get it. I’ve seen the comments that anyone who considers themselves a SMOF should be ashamed of themselves. I’ve watched people accuse the entire group of being out-of-touch, exclusive, overly conservative, power-grubbing, and more. I’ve come across the outright mockery. I suspect the folks who identify as SMOFs have heard far worse, and that sucks.
SFWA has gone through similar crap lately. The organization has had its share of screw-ups, and people generalize them to everyone and everything associated with the organization. “SFWA is an organization of old white dudes stuck in the past, working hard to ensure their own irrelevance.”
That certainly describes some members, yes. But not all of them. Any more than the SMOFs listserv is made up of a unified groupmind convinced that anyone who offers criticism or asks questions is THE ENEMY.
I get that some folks prefer a simplistic binary view of the world. Hell, I’m sure I’ve fallen into that trap myself on occasion, though I try not to. But the whole “Us vs. Them” thing is inaccurate, childish, and harmful no matter which side you think you’re on. There are assholes on every side of every debate. Assuming an organization, whether it’s SMOFs or SFWA or liberals or conservatives or whatever, to be a monolithic borg-mind of Wrongness is just going to increase that siege mentality and probably irritate even the people who might agree with you. Assuming all criticism comes from the “Them” who are out to get you means ignoring real concerns and alienating potential allies.
Someone pointed out that it can be hard to hear criticism of something you’ve poured so much time and work into. Yep. I spend a year or more on every book, and as soon as it appears in the world, people start to point out my mistakes, things I could have done better, and so on. It’s hard. Sometimes it feels unfair. Occasionally I go home and curl up in my Protective Blanket of Fear for a while.
But “I worked hard on this” doesn’t exempt you from criticism. Those harsh reviews aren’t about anyone being out to get me. It’s not an Authors vs. Reviewers thing. It’s people taking the time to express their opinions because they care about this stuff. Sure, some of those opinions are wrong. Others raise valid points. Sometimes I even learn from the criticism, and am able to improve future books.
I love fandom. I love conventions. I love getting to geek out with people, to celebrate our stories and our jokes and our heroes and more. But our community also has some serious problems, and I intend to keep talking about them and trying to push for us to solve them. Not because I’m trying to destroy fandom, but because I care about it and want it to be better. And I think the “Us vs. Them” nonsense is one of the things that continues to hurt us, and gets in the way of progress.
I know there are people out there who hate me, and that’s fine. But I hope they hate me for me, for the things I’ve actually said and done, as opposed to their perception that I’m one of “them,” for whatever value of “them” you might be using at the moment.
Thanks for reading. This was something I needed to get out of my system.
Oh, and whoever has been taking it upon themself to forward my Tweets and blog posts to the SMOFs listserv, please feel free to forward this one as well. Thanks!
Anne Gray (@zer_netmouse)
September 1, 2013 @ 2:37 pm
Thanks for posting this, Jim. Last night someone at Worldcon called you anti-smof and I have to admit I gave her kind of a “What? You’re crazy” look before calmly saying we’ve always had the best relationship with you in Michigan. I am frequently amazed how quickly people will entrench against a person when they are feeling defensive. It’s really another way of dismissing the issues as if they aren’t real, and I appreciate knowing that you are among those out there saying, “No, this is real, and though you may try to vilify me, that does not negate (or address) the reality of the issues.” Keep it up. 🙂
Jim C. Hines
September 1, 2013 @ 3:25 pm
Thanks, Anne. I very much appreciate your comment.
September 1, 2013 @ 4:41 pm
I spent the summer trying to finish a book (finished! in production!). And now I’m busy trying to start the next one. So I’ve missed this particular train and don’t really know what’s going on. (Though I do know from growing up around sf/f: DO NOT MESS WITH SMOFs! Do not even say the word “SMOF” aloud!)
But my father has been the subject of widespread sf/f controversy and much sf/f blogging and online gossip this year. (And in some instances total strangers who apparently have a LOT of time on their hands chose to drag my name into that mess, too.) What I learned from that whole situation is that once your name enters the internet gossip cycle, speculation and supposition soon become treated as verified fact, those fabrications get further built on and embellished, and people who know virtually nothing about you become the new public experts on you.
IOW, it doesn’t stop with people reacting, as is certainly their right, to what you actually wrote or actually said. It goes waaaaaay past that. Absurdly so.
And what I learned is, when that shit goes on, the only sane choice is to walk away from that nonsense, tune it out, and refocus on the things that actually matter. Because the people who want to attribute things to you that you’ve never said or done, and who want to assign views to you that you’ve never held… they’re not going to be swayed by mere FACTS, nor by corrections from you or from someone who actually knows you. That way lies madness, and it’s best to keep your attention and energy on the things that matter, rather than on total strangers spiraling merrily in the usual fact-free gossip cycle of fandom or the internet.
Jim C. Hines
September 1, 2013 @ 4:43 pm
Though I do know from growing up around sf/f: DO NOT MESS WITH SMOFs! Do not even say the word “SMOF” aloud!
Oh, sure. NOW you tell me 😛
September 1, 2013 @ 4:47 pm
You think I’m kidding.
September 1, 2013 @ 5:03 pm
You’ve hit the nail right on the head when you define the problem as ‘us vs them’.
I love this image https://fbcdn-sphotos-c-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash3/556505_519784081442633_609980928_n.jpg. (someone else’s image on facebook) of Christians creating a wall of protection for Muslims praying and Muslims creating a wall of protection for Christians praying.
If there was more of this kind of thing the world would be a better place.
Unfortunately we’re slightly less hairy monkeys, obsessed with our place in the hierarchy. In order to secure status, SOMEONE has to be ‘underneath’ us in that hierarchy.
So we create an ‘other’, whether that person is a non-SMoF, a SMoF, a different colour, religion, sexual orientation or disability.
Instead of defining the ‘other’ to create status, we could have coffee with the ‘other’. Let our kids play with the ‘other’. Have a street barbeque with the ‘other’.
Suddenly we realise that the ‘other’ is really just the same as us, with similar core hopes and fears.
Well, we can live in hope.
Keep on talking about those social issues Jim!
Jim C. Hines
September 1, 2013 @ 5:08 pm
I love that photo so much, thank you.
September 1, 2013 @ 8:02 pm
The SMOF sign at Worldcon was on the door where the Business Meeting was being held. It almost made a few nonSMOF people (such as myself) think that they wouldn’t be allowed in the Business Meeting. But I had heard that all attendees would be allowed, so I went in anyway.
September 1, 2013 @ 8:48 pm
You know, I saw some of the twitter stuff around this yesterday and was absolutely shocked by the lengths one person who was upset with you went to express their anger. Personally, as an outsider to the whole culture of organized fandom, it left me feeling like that person was completely out of touch with reality. Then it led me to start down the path you talk about in this post: I started thinking “wow, if that’s what these SMOF folks are like I really don’t think I ever want to become part of organized fandom”. I mean I’m early days working at this writing thing, and I hope to one day to write something that would mean I could go to a con and someone might actually know my name, but what I saw makes me think I really don’t want the con scene to be part of my experience as a writer. Which of course is exactly the generalizing sort of thought that you’re talking about. I’m sure not all people involved in organizing cons are of such an US vs THEM mentality.
I think that, along with the US vs. THEM thoughts, writers and SMOFs and such also share a misplaced sense of ownership that leads to these kinds of problems. When you write a book or organize a con you probably think of it (understandably) as YOUR book or con. And, of course, in one sense it is. But what a lot of people probably forget is that when someone reads your book or attends your con the create an experience with that thing that is THEIRS and they have every right to comment and criticize their own experience of your creation.
Anyway, all this is a long way of saying I think you got treated pretty shittily the other day and I’m glad you’re getting it out of your system, and in a positive way.
September 1, 2013 @ 8:53 pm
Mr Hines: as someone who doesn’t live in the USA, and didn’t grow up there, but who did (unavoidably) wind up partaking of a certain amount of US-created cultural content via television and movies, I suspect the whole “Us and Them” mentality is something which is ingrained into US culture. It goes hand in hand with a certain reluctance to compromise (compromise and co-operation are somehow regarded as “unAmerican”), a tendency toward having no middle gears (full speed ahead and full speed reverse, but nothing in between) and with this strong tendency to split the universe into binary dualities, and pick one side of this artificial duality as being “right”. It’s also tied into the strongly individualistic mindset espoused by the exported culture of the USA.
This is not to say such tendencies don’t exist elsewhere in the world (gods know, here in Australia we’re in the thick of the worst of it at the moment; it’s election season – thank all the gods it’ll be over by Sunday). Just that the culture of the USA does tend to put a lot of emphasis on such things, and the mindset is rather pervasive.
September 2, 2013 @ 12:20 am
I don’t think it’s a matter of them being childish. Conworkers are very hard workers, very dedicated. Most of them are volunteers, but some of them make a good bit of money from some of the for profit cons. But there are some people involved in running cons who seem to have developed the belief that they are powerbrokers in the industry and feel that their power as such is being threatened. These people have behaved very unprofessionally, made threats, antagonized authors, spoken with unbelievable cluelessness, and hurt their cons, especially with younger people and authors. They have generally put forth a presentation of fandom that is exclusionary, hidebound, hostile, uncaring and even occasionally dangerous. They have made it into a power struggle in which the power they actually have is quite slim. And as long as those people are allowed to run rampant and not have to look at what they are actually doing, the whole SMOF network will be treated with suspicion by a lot of people. It’s a reactive organization instead of a proactive one, although there are many people involved who are trying to make it proactive. But I suspect it’s going to be a con by con project.
That we are having all these issues with cons is actually a sign of the health and vitality of cons and multimedia fandom participation — a sign of interest in having cons still around. It’s a transitional situation. But con staffs that sit entrenched in a right of royals philosophy are going to get the short end of the stick. Make it difficult for authors, exhibitors, booksellers, etc., and they won’t come. There are plenty of cons and since cons particularly cost authors money to attend usually, there’s no point in going to one where the staff is driving you crazy and won’t cooperate. If they maintain an “Us” viewpoint, “us” is all they will have, but “them” is what you need to have a successful con.
September 2, 2013 @ 12:31 am
‘I think that, along with the US vs. THEM thoughts, writers and SMOFs and such also share a misplaced sense of ownership that leads to these kinds of problems. When you write a book or organize a con you probably think of it (understandably) as YOUR book or con. And, of course, in one sense it is. But what a lot of people probably forget is that when someone reads your book or attends your con the create an experience with that thing that is THEIRS and they have every right to comment and criticize their own experience of your creation.’
I, on the other hand, am not an outsider to organized fannish culture; I’ve been going to cons, and sometimes doing some conrunning, since the early ’90s. But, based on my own experience/observations, despite your self-declared ‘outsider’ status, you’ve nailed a key component of the problem. (It has a flip side, attendees who lack a sense of ownership, even though the typical structure of a fan-run con means they do have ownership if they know to claim it.)
It’s usually not an intentionally-cultivated paradigm, but it’s there nonetheless.
September 2, 2013 @ 11:44 am
If that sign said “SMOF ZONE — All Worldcon Members Welcome, Please Come In”, that would match a lot closer what fandom is when it’s at its best. It’s possible that the people who put it up even thought that’s what they were saying, because, when things are working, fandom is a place with no demarcation between “fans”, “creators”, and “people who put things together and make them work.”
But you have to WORK to make it that way.
Daniel D. Webb
September 2, 2013 @ 12:18 pm
With all due respect, I have to take exception to this.
I’m a bit of an outsider to fan culture myself; I have been to exactly one con in my life and had never heard the term SMOF until reading this blog post. Yet I had no trouble whatsoever recognizing every detail of the problem described, because I am an amateur student of human nature who devours books on psychology as much as I do fantasy. And to be honest, human nature is exactly what we’re seeing here. The “Us vs. Them,” this tribalism, is exactly what people DO. All people, everywhere. Different cultures express it in different ways (as they do everything) but the first step in HAVING a culture is being able to point at people who aren’t in it.
So no, this is not an American thing. It’s not even a fandom thing; it’s a purely human thing, and trying to pin it on any specific group is a case in point of exactly the problem being described. The good news is there’s an easy fix: this stops happening when people simply listen to each other and make an effort to understand the other person’s point of view. The bad news is that the very mental wiring that makes us prone to do this in the first place makes us reluctant to take these simple steps.
September 2, 2013 @ 7:06 pm
I didn’t see the SMOF zone signs at the Business Meeting (and would have ignored them, because that’s how I roll), but it would have cheered me up to have seen them. My late husband is credited with coining the term (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMOF)and other than a small picture facing the wall in an obscure part of the exhibits area, he was largely ignored. He was in fandom for over 40 years, he wrote over 50 books, was nominated for a Hugo twice, and may be the youngest person ever nominated for a Hugo, and 8.5 years after he died, it’s like he never existed. And that breaks my heart. He mattered. We would have never met if not for con-running, we would not have two wonderful children. I am in sympathy with those who feel excluded by it, but to me, and my sons, it’s a tribute to the man we loved and who drove us crazy.
September 2, 2013 @ 8:54 pm
troll, troll, just be glad they could have really insulted you and called you a goblin 😉
September 3, 2013 @ 12:23 am
Eva, one of my favorite memories from the one Worldcon I’ve made it to (Winnipeg in ’94) is of him – we shared a cafeteria table briefly, and discussed nuances of the ‘5 & 2’ rule. So, no, he isn’t forgotten.
September 3, 2013 @ 2:03 am
And that’s pretty much what I edited out of my comment yesterday because I couldn’t express it anywhere near that succinctly. From inside the culture, terms like ‘con member’ are clear and obvious signals – but it’s possible for someone to attend several cons without ever realizing (or being told) that ‘membership’ isn’t just local dialect for ‘admission ticket’.
I do take issue with ‘no demarcation’ – much as we may like to think that’s the ideal we’re striving for, we aren’t, and can’t. ‘GoH’ is a demarcator; so are titled concom positions. I was going to say that was a small nitpick with your word choices (I, too, cherish the ‘we are all fans’ idea), but on reflection I think it’s not small at all, but at the heart of all these contentious issues: when people don’t notice, and especially when they’re very carefully not noticing, the existence of demarcation, they can’t notice the consequences of that demarcation.
It seems likely to me that you’re right about the people who put up the sign intending it inclusively, completely oblivious to the ‘SMOF/non-SMOF’ demarcation, and I’d say that’s because they were so accustomed to the idea that fandom is a place of no demarcations. (I’m guessing we’re pretty much in agreement here, especially given your closing line.)
Jim C. Hines
September 3, 2013 @ 7:48 am
Hey, now. That’s crossing a line!
Jim C. Hines
September 3, 2013 @ 7:51 am
Eva – I’m so sorry. Having read his work, I would second Sunflower that he isn’t forgotten, and that you’re absolutely right, he did matter.
Jim C. Hines
September 3, 2013 @ 7:53 am
After reading these two, I’m in the odd position of having nothing to add, except maybe that I agree with you both…
Jim C. Hines
September 3, 2013 @ 7:55 am
“These people have behaved very unprofessionally, made threats, antagonized authors, spoken with unbelievable cluelessness, and hurt their cons, especially with younger people and authors.”
This is the part that feels childish to me. And it’s obviously not everyone. In my personal experience, it’s not even a majority of people involved in conrunning (with the caveat that this is my experience only, etc.) But I also think that even if it’s a minority, it’s still something that hurts a lot of people at different levels.
September 3, 2013 @ 2:00 pm
I love hearing about people’s encounters with Jack. Part of my affection for John Scalzi is he seems to have the same kindness about interacting with all.
September 3, 2013 @ 5:42 pm
Eva, I read your comment and thought “I don’t remember any author named Jack Whitley”, which is my bad for assuming you’d taken his surname. But when I clicked… gosh! Of course we remember him!
But although I remember him and know the term SMOF (being SMOF-adjacent) I didn’t know he coined it.
So, he isn’t forgotten, and his writing did matter. I only met him a couple of times, but he was always very kind.
September 3, 2013 @ 7:53 pm
Thanks for this voice of wisdom. It reminds me of celebrity gossip, or how every political season people get on their war horses over something they read in an e-mail. They don’t take ten seconds to find out it’s a bald-faced lie designed to incite just such thoughtless rage, and when it’s pointed out to them they’re wrong, they hold to their beliefs even more strongly than before.
I don’t know how authors and public figures find the guts to enter that sphere of bs-slinging snipes, but thanks for the insight.
September 4, 2013 @ 12:54 am
Your husband was much respected. And I don’t think there’s a lot of objection to the term SMOF, certainly not to its origins. It’s what some people seem to be trying to turn it into that’s kicking up dust.
September 4, 2013 @ 10:18 am
I was brand new to fandom in 1998 when I went to a BSFS meeting (shortly after Worldcon), with a friend. We knew no one there, but Jack (and Joe Mayhew) made us feel very welcome. I won’t forget either of them.
September 8, 2013 @ 10:52 am
Most of them are volunteers, but some of them make a good bit of money from some of the for profit cons.
Just a minor quibble: Worldcon is organized purely on a volunteer base and nobody gets a dime out of it. In fact, many will spend a fair amount of their own money in order to involve themselves with the hobby of con running. Majority of this talk about SMOFs has been about Worldcon and branching out to commercial conventions muddles this discussion.
Are SMOFs occasionally prone to temper tantrums, being childish and overtly sensitive? Well, yeah. Do SMOFs make mistakes? D’oh. Should SMOFs be critiqued when there is need for it? Indeedy. Are all SMOFs equal? I’ll let Eric Blair answer that one.
Thanks for your blog, books and all the rest!
September 9, 2013 @ 2:55 pm
Well, I have been a member of fannish culture for most of my life, having attended and worked at cons since I was a teenager in the 80’s. I have only recently been introduced to the idea of using the term SMOF as anything but a joke or an insult. I doubt that anyone down here on the Gulf Coast would call themselves a SMOF. It’s not really part of our fannish culture.(there are regional variations in fandom)The current fashion seems to be using the term to denote someone who helps run cons, not necessarily everyone in organized fandom. Aside from the media shows run by for-profit concerns like Wizard World (the Applebees of conventions) cons are all either non-profit or simply unprofitable, run entirely by volunteers who sacrifice a great deal just so that these cons can exist. The higher up the chain of command you go, the greater the sacrifices, both in time and money. The thing that irked me about your initial tweet was that if left open the conclusion, which some responses did indicate, that there is discrimination in “choosing” Worldcon chairs, when often there is no such choice involved. It can be hard enough to find more than one person interested in the job period in the entire friggin’ world of fandom, it’s such a huge burden and offers no tangible rewards. The overwhelming majority of folks who attend Worldcon will never even know who the chair was because they don’t care. When there is more than one bid,(as often there has not been in past decade)people vote for the city or the committee as a whole, not a chair. It does move all over the world and some of the people in that picture are not from anywhere in North America. What the plethora of pale faces in that photo indicates is not prejudice in the “choice” of Worldcon chairs, as some very vocal people seem to have concluded, but the rarity of people of color among science fiction fans period. This isn’t exactly news. There was a time, a generation or two ago, when women in fandom were rare and some people outside of fandom still believe in that stereotype of fans. That the overwhelming majority of fans are caucasian is not a stereotype. I see more racial and gender diversity among anime fans than sci-fi fans, but they are mainly very young (very, very young, as in below drinking age) and don’t consider themselves sci-fi fans or their conventions sci-fi cons. The ones that I’ve met are almost all uninterested in science fiction literature or cons of the Worldcon type.