In Which I Don’t Talk About the Hugos

In SFF circles, there’s been a lot of public talk about the Hugo Awards. Public talk generally means controversy, name-calling, and unhappiness. My public response to the Hugos was to tweet a picture of Puck as a kitten.


I’m not going to talk about the Hugos here either. (Stefan Raets at Far Beyond Reality has been compiling posts if you’re interested.) Instead I’m going to talk about why I am not talking about the Hugos. It’s because I find the various forms of online media communication counterproductive to meaningful resolution.


Communication is a messy business.


We live in a culture that has become used to making arguments in short online bursts without the benefit of body language and often without time for consideration of the issue. When we are faceless, we seem to revel in telling other faceless people they are stupid, bigoted, wrong, self-righteous, gatekeepers, ignorant, insensitive, uneducated, wacko, and on and on and on. Kindness, courtesy, and thoughtfulness go out the window. We are ring-wraiths, invisible and pitiless.


There’s a concept in tort law called the “eggshell plaintiff.” If you negligently leave a ladder where someone can trip over it, an elderly plaintiff is likely to be more injured than an athlete. But saying an athlete wouldn’t be hurt doesn’t keep you from being found negligent to the elderly person. You can’t blame the victim for being easily broken; you have to pay the consequences.

A lot of online interactions consist of leaving ladders out where someone can trip over them. There’s no knowing whether you’re going to trip an athlete or a senior citizen. Something that might not seem dangerous can cause a lot of damage.


In law school, I took a course on settlement and a course on mediation. There are two things I learned in these classes that influence my feelings about online communications: first, getting to a settlement or resolution take time and preparation. Mediations in law go on for hours. Settlement conferences require statements of the issues to be prepared for the judge and opposing party prior to the conference, so there is time to read and think about the opposing position and go in with (ideally) well-considered arguments of one’s own. Law is an area where people argue, but there are rules and structures for the arguments. There’s a reason court cases take months or years.

Second, for the mediation or settlement session to be successful instead of a dead-end or stalemate, the parties have to feel heard. When people don’t feel heard, they get louder and louder and stop listening themselves. When they really feel heard, they are ready to give something back. Receiving a genuine apology can matter more than compensation or “making things right.” If you’ve ever argued your way through levels of customer service and finally got to someone who “understood the problem,” you’ve experienced “being heard.” It is a relief.

Tweeting and blog-commenting don’t lend themselves to either of these points.


Online communications are short on time. Points have to be made in a hurry or they become stale. So they get made with a jerk of the knee and not with lengthy consideration or preparation.

And it’s a damn hard to feel heard online. Part of the reason it’s hard is that public commenting or tweeting is shouting from the rooftop. You can’t tell who really hears it. Furthermore, all your neighbors are shouting from their rooftops too. Part of the reason is that embarrassment, shame, or fed-up-ness, emotions which are easily generated online, can lead to retreat from the whole process. Part of the reason is that public outrages feeds on itself and discussions turn into attempts at conquest.


But here’s the thing: winning is not the same as being heard.


As part of my mediation class, I observed a mediation. I was supposed to observe an entire day of mediation in action, and instead I got mediation-bust; the attorney for one party had already filed an appeal of the lower court decision, meaning that he no longer was invested in anything but winning, and the parties broke off after the court-ordered minimum hours. But even with only two hours, my take-away from the session was that the parties could have got somewhere if they had been allowed by the attorneys to have more time to work it out. The presenting issue was a matter of money; it swiftly became obvious that what was at issue were much deeper emotional conflicts.

Each side’s story was convincing when I heard it alone.

Each party was trying to do what they saw as the right thing. They thought they had been treated unfairly, but they were not out for vengeance or to humiliate the other party. They were decent people in a bad situation.

Someone won that case. A decision was handed down by a court of appeal and was presumably abided by. But from what I saw in those two hours, I doubt the winning side felt a whole lot better.


I’m going to end with some of Gandalf’s wiser words:

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy, not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

We don’t have to throw the ring of online communications into the fire. But let’s try a little harder to be hobbits and not wraiths.