Justin Landon’s recent comments about the weakness of the San Diego Comic Con’s harassment policy, and John Scalzi’s plans to go even though it doesn’t meet his stated hard requirements for attendance, got me thinking about responsibility and leadership. Justin has repeatedly called out the tendency of those with social power to not be held accountable for bad behavior. This speaks both to a subtle (or not so subtle) class system within the community, as well as the ways social power influences how difficult it is to take action in a given context. It’s unclear how many authors who have bought into Scalzi’s policy as a minimum requirement for being a “a panelist, participant or Guest of Honor at a convention” are planning to attend the SDCC. I found Scalzi’s explanation of why he intends to go disappointing, and I’ll be interested to see how it plays out. Regardless, the issue highlights Scalzi’s position as a leader in the speculative fiction community, and it got me thinking about who our leaders are, what we should expect from them, and what’s at stake.  

Who Are Our Leaders?

I’ve been poking around the speculative fiction community for a couple of years, now – long enough that I’ve evolved from listening to primarily the bigger voices (that I found first) to devoting the majority of my time to the people whose ideas and writing I enjoy the most.

Everyone has their own community, defined by the voices that they listen to and engage with. There are some voices that everyone who’s spent much time looking around will have come into contact with: Scalzi, Hines, and Wendig come to mind. You can find new people by paying attention to guest posts: I know that Katherine Addison just released The Goblin Emperor because I started to notice her name popping up in a lot of articles. Gail Z. Martin is starting to manifest in a similar way, as the release of Deadly Curiosities approaches. SF Signal’s daily SF/F/H link post is a great way to get a feel for who’s out there and what they’re saying. I hear about people through the kerfuffles they get involved in, or by seeing who the people I follow on Twitter are talking to. Passively or actively, we form communities around us, but what defines our leaders?

The leaders of the larger community, I think, are the people that everyone is familiar with: people that even if you don’t follow their blogs or read their books, you can’t escape their opinions. Voices with the greatest authority get talked about by other people – their opinions get shared – and it’s this level of visibility, and the ripples it creates in the community, that defines them as leaders. A book deal brings with it a level of peer validation that puts authors in a unique “class,” that when combined with a successful blog results in undeniable community influence, for better or for worse.

What Should We Expect From Our Leaders?

I hold everyone to the same standard when it comes to commitments they’ve made. In the case of the SDCC policy issue, it’s a reasonable expectation that anyone who signed off on Scalzi’s convention standards shouldn’t be going to the SDCC, or should offer an explanation as to why they are. Opinions evolve, or gain nuance as time passes and circumstances change. I believe in assuming good intent, and while calling people out to effect change serves a valuable function, ratcheting up online outrage makes the community a worse place , not a better one. That said, in the case of John Scalzi, he used his authority to take on a leadership role, invited others to follow suit, and then re-prioritized his position. This is his prerogative, but it’s hard not to question his leadership.

How someone in a position of power acts in relation to those with less power is important, as well. Leaders – people with big platforms – have a responsibility to be not just reasonable, but kind: more so than people with less power. A leader who gains the upper hand not through carefully constructed arguments, but through the existence of a large, sometimes volatile community of people behind them isn’t cool. Someone with a big platform should think long and hard before using it to take someone at a disadvantage down a peg. When people with authority participate, comment threads, forums, and Twitter conversations become not just public spaces, but reflections of the larger community. When poor behavior goes unchecked, the community is diminished. Everyone has the right to express their opinions, of course, and where the line is between someone who has a little authority and a community leader is unclear. Personally, I believe that everyone should always act the way they want the leaders of their community to act.

What’s at Stake?

I take the opinions of people who have authority with a big grain of salt. Why should I care what Chuck Wendig thinks? I shouldn’t, except to the degree that I enjoy his voice, and respect his experience. The problem is that what these people say and think impacts me: I swim in these waters. If John Scalzi writes a convention policy, I hear about it. When Jonathan Ross is picked to host the Hugos and a storm ensues, I hear about it. When Theodore Beale/Vox Day says something obnoxious, I hear about it. All of these things – not just what happened, but the language used, the tone, and how it resolved (or didn’t) – become part of how I perceive the larger community. Do I see it as inviting, or hostile? Are differing opinions welcomed, or are they shut down? Is it forgiving, or harsh? Evolving, or static? Do I want to engage with it, or do I want to focus on the people around me? Individuals with authority – and leaders, who have the most – have a big say in how I answer these questions.

Who do you think of as leaders in the speculative fiction community, and why? What voices do you listen to and enjoy? Each of us brings authority and responsibility to bear on our own lives. Each of us should think deeply about how our behavior impacts the people and communities that we come into contact with. Sometimes that means not going to a convention. Sometimes it’s as simple as insisting that someone you disagree with be treated with respect. Regardless, we all have the ability to step outside of the authority given to someone by the larger community and decide who we want to listen to. The people we invest with authority are our leaders. Who they are matters, and we should choose them carefully.

ETA: On 7/2/2014, John Scalzi updated his SDCC status.