I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about Polaris. Formerly “Toronto Trek”, one of the huger local cons, it changed its name a few years back and started featuring sf novelists in an attempt to expand into the literary end of the sf pool. Their media roots have always remained front and center, though. When I appear it’s always as one of their token literary types, and none of my panels tend to focus on written sf; offhand I don’t think any of this year’s panels did.
If there’s a criticism here, it’s only that Polaris shouldn’t try to be something it’s not. There’s nothing wrong with cons that cater to fans of Doctor Who and Stargate — movies and television, after all, have far broader appeal than does science fiction in its written form. Of course, the larger your audience, the more difficult it gets to avoid offending all of them. The more people in attendance, the greater the odds that some will collapse into apoplectic hysteria the moment Janet Jackson’s nipple makes an unscheduled split-second appearance on national television.
I had my own personal nipple moment at Polaris this past weekend, delivered unto me by a woman who — well, some of you may remember a distant post in which I modestly proposed that the parents of young children should not be allowed to vote, on the grounds that parenthood causes a form of mild retardation. This woman exemplified that argument so powerfully that I’m now almost willing to take it seriously.
It began at “Avatar: the Theory of Pandora”, a productive hour of freewheeling bullshit, retconning, and evolutionary brainstorming between myself, Karl Schroeder, and a supporting cast of dozens. At some point I — as is my wont — used the word “fucking” as an adjective.
Exhibit A sat in the front row, two sprogs in tow (one 5-10, one possible preteen — my expertise in the age-determination of human larvae is not all it could be). She took strong exception: “Could we keep this PG? There are children in the audience, and if I hear that again I’m out of here.”
I explained that the word “fuck” has a 900-year history, throughout most of which it was considered completely inoffensive. “It only became offensive 100-200 years ago, when a bunch of bible-thumping prudes who couldn’t get laid decided to stigmatize anything with an orifice.” Sadly, this cut no ice: “Well, I find it offensive.”
Ceiling Cat help me, I actually reined in my language for a bit there. Forced my tongue to articulate “ass-kicker” when it wanted to say “motherfucker”, that kind of thing. And those of you who’ve been making comments in past postings will be pleased to note that we covered a lot of ground: Pandora as an engineered construct, the obvious retcon represented by the prolemurs glimpsed briefly in the movie, Cameron’s famous admission that the Na’vi “had to have tits”. Karl and I and our supporting cast covered it all, and inevitably found ourselves dealing with the anomalous fact that the Na’vi are biped tetrapods when everything else on the planet is hexapodal. Ms. Virgin-Ears 2010 piped up that “Earth people can’t breathe the air on Pandora, so maybe there’s something magical in the atmosphere that makes the Na’vi look like us.”
I realized at this point that the loss of this woman’s voice would not significantly diminish the quality of the conversation. I don’t know if that had a significant impact on the degree of my self-censorship; I can only say that shortly after the dawning of this insight, my tongue felt the urge to form the phrase “shit-kicked”, and my brain did not override. True to her word, the woman in the front row gathered up her sprogs and left the room, and something in me heaved a small sigh of relief. I didn’t even wonder too much when three or four different con officials dropped in at various points throughout the rest of the panel, only to hover briefly at the back of the room and drift out again. The remainder of the hour went smoothly — so smoothly that, when Karl wound up the session by remarking that he would rather see design than natural selection in the biology of Pandora, I felt no hesitation in responding “What are you, a creationist?” And then, a moment later: “Actually, since the front row seems to have bailed: What are you, a fucking creationist?”
It got a big laugh.
We packed up. Someone wanted me to sign a book. I told him he’d have to wait until I found a urinal, which I did; the men’s washroom was down at the end of a long white deserted hallway. And when I emerged a minute later, four red shirts were standing in the hall to block passage.
We’d like to talk to you, Mr. Watts. Someone has lodged a formal complaint about your language during the panel.
My unspoken reaction was WTF? My spoken one, I think, was “Tough shit.” Or maybe just “tough.” Either way, it didn’t seem to soothe the redshirt who’d called me out, since she added that I’d also been charged with being inebriated while on the panel.
“Do I seem inebriated to you?” I asked. “Am I slurring my words, having any trouble expressing coherent thoughts?”
She told me she wasn’t buying that because — I shit you not — writers are well-known for being able to speak coherently while drunk. Which was such a delightful self-contradiction I knew then and there I was going to really enjoy the rest of the conversation.
I trotted out the usual arguments. There are people who find gay marriage offensive. There are those who are offended by the concept of evolution. Will we be taking their hurt feelings seriously as well?
Well, no, of course not, but the issue is there were children in the room.
So a parent drags her sprog out into the big bad world and the world is now obligated to accommodate her particular standards of morality? Because yes, you have every right to remove yourself from settings you find offensive; but having done so, the issue is resolved. Lodging a formal complaint is tantamount to stating that you get to order the rest of the world how to behave, that your personal outrage is legitimate grounds for censure; and really, in a free society1, is there an inalienable right to never be offended?
Well, we do advertise ourselves as a PG con, one of the redshirts replied, at which point another — name of Declan, I know him slightly, seems nice — pointed out that swearing is actually quite common in PG movies.
By now it was pretty evident that these people did not want to be here. They’d all checked out my panel performance in the wake of the complaint, after all, and seen nothing of concern; I hadn’t been spewing alcoholic vomit into the front row or insulting the audience. I obviously wasn’t anywhere close to inebriation. One of them even described my thumbnail history of the word “fuck” as “awesome”. But a complaint had been lodged, and they were obligated to interview me because there are two sides to every story (“No,” I protested, “there aren’t two sides, she’s completely right! I did use vulgar language! And I will fucking well continue to use it, not because I’m trying to offend but because that’s just the way I happen to talk…”). I volunteered to withdraw from the rest of the con if they had a problem with this, no hard feelings whatsoever, an option they unanimously rejected. As far as they were concerned, nothing had happened. The complaint was without merit. We shook hands. Declan even invited me to the after-con party on Sunday night, which I would have attended if not for a previous engagement. Everything’s cool.
I did, however, notice a shiny new sign outside the room when I showed up for my Sunday panel: CAUTION: ADULT LANGUAGE. Which, yes, I really should have grabbed and had framed.
Oh, and that guy who wanted me to sign his book? He waited for me, book in hand: the alternate-history anthology ReVisions, edited by Julie Czerneda. And the story I wrote for that antho, the one I belatedly scribbled my signature across? “A Word for Heathens.”
Which pretty much sums it up, leaving only the obligatory wail of anger and impotent frustration:
P.S. You won’t be hearing from me much the rest of the week. Maybe a comment or two, but probably no other posts unless I feel inspired to upload pictures of the local cats. I’m out at the annual island writing retreat; gotta read about twenty-five thousand words of other people’s writing every damn day, plus write two thousand words of my own.
Pray for me.