Calling for a Disbanding of Cliques and the Culture of Fear

For the past several days I’ve been incensed, heartbroken, and triggered to the nth degree over the allegations posted by professionals who worked for/with ChiZine Publications (CZP). It was one thing for me to read about the alleged mismanagement of funds and/or nonpayment of royalties, but quite another to read multiple posts* that mentioned abuse, harassment, and a working culture that made them afraid to speak out about it.

If you’d like to know more about the allegations and the first-hand experiences of those affected by CZP, Michael Matheson has been writing informative articles on their blog. Here’s the latest one I’ve read.

What has shaken me up even more than the content of these stories—which I believe because people who come forward often have far more to lose than to gain—was some of the responses from authors in the speculative fiction community. Things like not wanting to lose a spec fic publisher because we need spec fic publishers in Canada. (Um, what? Did you really mean to share that thought with other humans?) And there are those saying we’re all piling up on CZP because they’re a little late on royalties and running a small press is hard. (I…I got nothing.) Then there are the “two-siders,” who want to hear CZP’s side of the story. (Honestly, I can’t even imagine what that perspective could look like.) The entire time I’m going through these responses, I’m thinking, “Hurting people are hurting! Can’t we maybe focus on the soul-crunching part of these stories?”

I am a survivor of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that happened in various points of my life. I’m also Irish, so I’m not exactly a “keep my tongue in my pocket” type of human. Ah, folks, I’ve been so angry about all of this. Like, massively sweary angry. F-bombs have happened when I’ve shared posts on Facebook. It’s because I’m triggered all the way into the middle of next month, and I feel for those who have spoken up.

I am part of the Canadian speculative fiction community. When I saw some of the selfish and insensitive responses to those pain-filled posts, I got fed up and was ready to quit being an author altogether. Just up and leave spec fic and never look back.

I was really gonna do it, too.

Then the glorious Tonya Liburd (seriously, follow her on Twitter at @somesillywowzer) posted a GIF on Facebook that said: If you’re going to stay alive, please do it for spite.

And despite my anger and being weak from empathy for all those hurting souls, I laughed. I laughed my head off. This would be the reason I wouldn’t quit: I’ll exist, just for spite. Thus, I say to those who have been hurt, please, keeping existing to spite the trolls. Let your amazingfulness shine. You have allies who want to see you soar.

After taking a deep breath, I read more. This time, I really noticed the strength of those coming forward, even if they perhaps didn’t know their own strength. I wanted to hug each one for apologizing for not coming forward sooner. (Hey, no apology necessary, even if you never publicly come forward. This is extremely complex and difficult stuff here.).

There was something else I observed as well: almost every story spoke about the culture of fear surrounding that publisher.

One thing I despise with a passion is a clique. In my opinion, cliques never lead to anything healthy. They are exclusive and so high school. Aren’t we supposed to be adults? Can’t we grow out of that “club” feeling? We’re not secure enough to welcome people into our sphere? Come on, seriously. You look ridiculous. If you’ve won awards and sold a billionty books, good for you! You did a thing! But don’t trot around as if brand-new emerging authors should be grateful you cast your shadow in their direction. It’s a wee bit pathetic. Experienced people sharing knowledge is beautiful and newer people sharing a fresh persective is also gorgeous. Everyone can learn from everyone else. (I used to facilitate problem-solving teams back in the day in telecommunications. I always gave equal opportunities for everyone to offer their input, regardless of their rank or years with the company. You should have seen the amazing solutions they came up with.) Collaboration and inclusion is healthy. Cliques are just so ugh.

I’m pro #DisbandTheCliques. Wish that could be a hashtag everyone would get behind.

And if you are conspiring on building and upholding a culture of fear, I hope people call you out on it big time. There’s nothing so douchbaggy as doing that. A culture of fear only gives birth to trauma, and trauma never really goes away. You can learn to live through it and even thrive, but the triggers can still come up. So, if you revel in adversely affecting people for the rest of their lives, [insert string of eloquently constructed Scottish insults here.] Because if you’ve never been insulted by a Scot feeling righteous indignation, honey, you’ve never been insulted. I might be Irish, but I highly respect the Scottish finesse of taking down a bully.

And listen, it’s not just the small presses out there, but also the conventions. If you truly want to build an inclusive culture, then that’s great. It’s a good start. But perhaps also take some time to reflect on your team. Does it celebrate diversity, and is it open to the input and concerns of your attendees? None of us knows everything. Diversity is complex and nuanced, and if you’re not a marginalized person in our society, that means you need to work even harder to listen to and consult with those who are. (Better yet, expand your team with more lived-experience representation.) Also, for the love of all things good, make rock-solid policies about harassment. Don’t shame or blame victims. And whatever you do, don’t make up feeble excuses for why an abuser should still be welcome at your con. If you truly want to be awesome, then go for it. Put your foot on the gas pedal and drive all the way to Awesomeland. Make people feel you are safe to approach and that your door is always open.

Lastly, through these stories I’ve learned about something called “the whisper network.” That’s when people who have been mistreated go to find consolation with others who they find to be safe. I don’t blame them one bit for doing this, if they fear that things will go against them if brought to light.

So, considering all that’s happened, as a Young Crone, my opinion is that every one of us must strive to be safe people for others. If we focus on that, we could build a community that is open and healthy. Cliques would die, fear would disappear, and there wouldn’t be a need for a whisper network.

Because in the end, we are creatives. Why not cultivate a culture where we can create in peace, share in each other’s joy, and give encouragement whenever anyone feels low? Isn’t that much nicer than cliques and a culture of fear? I think so.

Anyway, I sincerely hope this horribleness pushes us all to work toward something good. It can really happen if we want it to. We just have to want to. (Spoiler: I want to. Who’s with me?)

* Edit: I accidentally used the word testimonies instead of posts in the first version of this article. I’m fatigued and my brain isn’t braining goodly right now.

Cait Gordon, in a black and white digital sketch
Cait Gordon

Cait Gordon is a disability advocate and the author of Life in the ’Cosm and The Stealth Lovers. When she’s not writing, Cait’s editing manuscripts and running The Spoonie Authors Network, a blog whose contributors manage disabilities and/or chronic conditions. She also teamed up with Kohenet Talia C. Johnson to co-edit the Nothing Without Us anthology (available in audiobook, ebook, and paperback).

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