CW: Sexual harassment
This past week, some serious stuff went down in the publishing industry, an industry that I, as a self-publishing writer, observe (and have occasionally envied) from a distance. The School Library Journal published an article about sexual harassment within the world of children’s publishing, naming a handful of alleged perpetrators and painful excerpts from the accounts of alleged victims. (To the accusatorially inclined, know that I write the word “alleged” only with technicality, not condescension. If the allegations are proven to be true, of course I want justice to be served.)
Over the course of a few days, the article’s comments section became a space for victims and trolls alike to communicate further on the subject, safely veiled in anonymity. Informally, the comments section of this article became what is known as a “whisper list.” It didn’t take long before a handful of other independent resources were created by members of the greater literary community, formal “whisper lists” where one could anonymously name allegedly problematic figures in the publishing industry. The first one I saw, Kosoko Jackson’s LGBQTA Whisper (which happens to be specifically for calling out homomisic predators in the publishing industry), has since been taken down, but the second one I witnessed, Publisher’s Anonymous, is still up. Do what you will with that information, but please allow me a moment to explain why I believe these anonymous tip line resources are, in practice, dangerous:
As noted, these whisper list / anonymous tip line resources allow reports to be filed with complete anonymity. You don’t actually know who’s writing, and it’s really all just “he said, she said.” While that is, in theory, for a victim’s protection, it can also be abused by the very monsters we wish to protect from. An abuser can claim to be an anonymous victim and start submitting the names of actual victims. When the actual victims speak up, it’s too late – having their name on this list destroys their credibility before it’s even come into question. Even if the true abuser is eventually exposed, whomever spoke first has already made their mark on the public’s subconscious.
A few years ago, a website called Social Autopsy was created by a “IRL” (in real life) bullying victim, Candace Owen. It was meant to be a crowdsourced, crowdfunded database of online “bullies” and any mean things they’ve posted on the Web. A potential employer could now, for example, use Social Autopsy to search for the names of prospective employees and decide, based on the online activities associated with their name, whether they are truly a good business asset. While Ms. Owens’ intentions were honorable, her system does more harm than good in terms of enabling online bullying in the form of libel, doxxing, and identity theft/misrepresentation. But again, once your name is on the database, rightfully, accurately, or not, it’s too late.
Harassment accusations against Jay Asher, the author of Thirteen Reasons Why (a controversial book that I’ve never read but believe to be problematic in of itself), culminated in his removal / departure from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. His side of the story, according to a BuzzFeed interview (reader discretion advised), is that “[he] had been harassed by [the anonymous sources who’d reported him] for close to 10 years,” and that he chose to leave the Society. I hate being a devil’s advocate in this situation, but Asher’s account, if true, seem consistent with my concerns about how these anonymous resources can be misused by actual abusers to further harm their victims. But it’s his word against an anonymous collective entity’s, and the latter spoke first.
“[Accused] has been named over 5 times in this thread alone,” says one anonymous commentator on the School Library Journal article, as though that gives the claims any more credibility. In this case, numbers mean something, but necessarily not what you want them to. While I take every anonymous accusation to heart and offer the victims my deepest sympathies, I must also accord them all a reasonable dose of skepticism. Five posts making the same accusation, for all I know, could be the doing of one troll (using multiple IP addresses and stuff like that to mask their identity) trying to commit character assassination of an innocent person out of spite or sadistic amusement. (I know it can happen; on a much smaller scale, in a very different context, it’s happened to me, too.*) And the rising #MeToo movement, bent as it is on exposing toxic males in the film and now publication industries, would be the perfect guise to take down a man you hate.
When I first expressed my concerns with the concept of whisper lists, Kosoko Jackson wanted to know:
I have a feeling, from the way he initially responded, that he thought he could just expose me as a dumb bigot who doesn’t actually want to help anyone, and triumphantly return his attention to more meaningful pursuits. In our subsequent conversation, I’d like to think I assuaged his worries; I have not taken off my thinking cap since our brief discussion.
That said, at this point in time, Mr. Jackson has decided to take down his list, which singles out specific members of the LGBTQIAP+ community for support and assistance, for legal reasons. He isn’t the first one to close the channels in order to protect oneself from lawsuits and other retaliation. I don’t necessarily see this as cowardice, so much as an indicator of the impulsive thinking (or lack thereof) that allowed for the creation of flawed resources in the first place.
To be honest, I hesitate to share my ideas because they, too, aren’t perfect; but I’ve also been scared that my silence thus far can be misconstrued as insincerity. Here’s the closest I’ve come in terms of thinking up a possible solution, but it too is flawed.
The main reason I don’t object to the prototype of these whisper lists, the comments section of the SLJ’s article that has been informally commandeered into an anonymous tip line, is that it is being monitored by a (presumably still) well-respected, professional organization within the publishing industry. While I’m not blind to how prone any Establishment or Institution is to internal corruption, I would like to think that these are the people who can actually do something about the harassment and abuse in their midst.
In that vein, having an official resources within the publishing industry to field confidential reports, concerns, complaints about sexual harassment and abuse within the industry may be a lot safer than, say, an easily trollable Tumblr blog or the instant-messages inbox of an aspiring writer. This alternative would require more than just the name of an allegedly problematic figure. It would require details, evidence if available to help corroborate the accusations, and may or may not have anonymity. It would, however, entail confidentiality between the reporter and the recipient.
But the flaws include (but are not not limited to) these:
- What if a toxic combination of internal corruption and bureaucracy smothers and discriminates against particular complainants, and worse, retaliates against them?
- What if a corrupt person is the one taking reports, someone who is not a harasser themselves, but complicit in their friends’ behavior, whether out of disbelief or personal loyalty?
- What if that corrupt person is privately bigoted, and would cherry-pick the reports that come in based on the complainant’s race, religion, creed, orientation, abilities, etc.?
- The decreased transparency of a confidential tip line might mean that, while people in power are now aware, lay people, (aspiring authors and fans) can’t tell if they’re continuing to support abusers and harassers in blissful ignorance.
Again, I would like to think that an official entity would a) have the power, should they choose to use it to the fullest, to actually take action against the abusers in their midst; and also have more immunity to legal repercussions.
I cannot say it my idea is the superior, better solution because I cannot ignore the holes in my own reasoning. But just as I made my objections known in hopes that someone with a better idea might offer their two cents, I also share my flawed thinking in hopes that someone can refine it into something that can truly help others.
*Once upon a time, I joined a group on the now-defunct Figment that was administrated by a troll and his posse. (Only, I didn’t know they were trolls at the time.) On Figment, ordinary users could create groups there, subforums if you will, and within these bubbles, they had absolute power over anyone who joined.
When I realized that the group was run by problematic characters, I left and distanced myself, but I also didn’t keep silent when this group’s administrator harassed other members elsewhere on the website.
He retaliated by using his administrator privileges to modify an old post I’d made in his group, which had said something as innocuous as “Hey, your group seems nice; I’ll be happy to tell others about it” into a slew of vulgarities against his lackeys that I, as a then-extremely-prudish young person, would never ever write.
He posted screenshots of his libelous handiwork everywhere he could in hopes of mobilizing a community attack against me. I finally got the attention of a Figment site admin who listened and promised to take action. Meanwhile, I kept silent in the face of my attackers, not as an admission of guilt, but because I knew someone more capable was doing something about it. I had friends sticking up for me, but if I said anything publicly at the time, it was just my word against the troll’s, and he’d spoken first. But good people knew the truth, believed me, and supported me.
The Figment site admin did take action; the troll’s multiple accounts were taken down, and I never heard from him again.