Thursday, May 11, 2017

Barrier societies.

Our strongest reactions always take us by surprise.

When a recent vote by a very old Sherlock Holmes society to allow women into its membership after all this time was not met with celebration from all corners, there were some very strong reactions. Two points of view surfaced that were naturally opposed. One, that had long accepted societal barriers and exclusive memberships of elder clubs. Another, that saw those exclusions as a remnant of a past they thought was behind us all. And both got a little surprised by the result.

So where does this leave us? Forgive the past and let the group start anew? Call for a stronger denouncement of the past from the next group to drop a barrier?

Or maybe think about dropping the barriers across the board.

Barrier societies . . . those with rules to exclude or invitation-only entry policies . . . are never built around a positive reason for their walls. If three of my friends and I are having dinner and go "Let's form a club that has the four of us in it!" that's a nice bonding moment. But the moment we go, "Let's select someone else to be in our club, but not just anybody . . . they have to be the right sort of person!" suddenly we're making a negative comment on fellow Sherlockians. Someone out there just doesn't deserve to be in our special club.

Will you find a better time at a barrier society's event than at an open society's event? Personally, I haven't encountered that. In fact, some of my favorite Sherlockian moments have been those dinner evenings when we'd just pick up every Sherlockian we'd run into on our way out of the hotel, like a big Sherlockian snowball rolling down a hill. Snowballs do make some folks nervous, I know. Running out of chairs is one of the ongoing arguments for invitation-only groups. But it's been my experience that chairs can be found if one really wants to find chairs.

What other reasons are there for Sherlockian barrier societies? Well, the biggest one is that having a barrier society creates a thrill for those who do cross the barrier at last. The first women seated at a formerly men-only banquet. Getting your name called after a decade of not hearing it come up. There's a thrill there, a little surge of dopamine, adrenaline, or some other bodily reaction that you'll hear described in the most loving fashion by those who experience it, and then later enjoy remembering that feeling as they see others have the same feeling.  It's a cheap thrill, and by cheap, I do mean inexpensive . . . if you don't count the price paid by those who never get to experience that thrill for whatever arbitrary reason a barrier society's leadership decides.

One of the worst arguments I saw during the recent blow-up was someone announcing that a younger Sherlockian could not complain about discrimination because they hadn't suffered it as much as that older Sherlockian had suffered it. People do suffer from barrier societies. The ones most hurt by such things often leave Sherlockiana and get forgotten . . . or if they aren't forgotten, get written off with some variation of "I guess they weren't the right sort" or "apparently not a devoted Sherlockian." They don't record their experience for journals, or go to banquets to relive their experience with the Sherlockian world.

The old model of the Sherlockian society is the "sparking plug" model, where a single person's enthusiasm causes them to plan and organize meetings. Sometimes they have a partner, sometimes they gather a committee, but usually you can see who's holding a group together. And if the personality of that core member thinks barriers are necessary, it's going to have barriers. This is where the "private club" argument comes in . . . though I can't think of a single Sherlock Holmes club that was founded by a public institution and required to let anyone in. All Sherlockian societies are privately run, most are just nice and friendly about it.

Barrier societies tend to get the most attention when they're a remnant of a discriminatory past, as with the "no girls allowed" groups. But they can exist in other forms as well. A happy hobby like Sherlockiana makes it easy to go "La-la-la, nothing but fun here!" and not consider the full impact of maintaining a society with barriers. Yet purposefully not giving something a thought is purposefully allowing it to exist. So we should give these things some thought now and then and consider the choices we're making.

Do we still need barrier societies?  Is the rush of crossing the barrier worth the cost to those who never cross? For some, it might always be. But the world is a surprising place these days. You just never know what might happen. Oh wait . . . maybe we should put up a barrier to prevent that.


  1. So I guess you're also denouncing the Baker Street Irregulars because of their exclusionary policy?

    How about black student groups who are demanding housing for people of color only? Should they be putting up barriers as well?

    1. Not really denouncing anyone, Bill. Just trying to work through a full awareness of what we're dealing with here. Your race argument seems to belong somewhere else, though, so I'm not going to comment on that.

  2. I really appreciate this column. It very clearly and even handedly gets to the heart of the matter. I was one of the people involved in the Facebook dustup (until I think I got booted from IHOSE's Facebook page?) and I'm sure I got more exercised than I should have but I felt the other side, those patting themselves on the back, were so aggressively tone deaf and the issue was so clear cut. They wouldn't even concede that "non-male" is suboptimal (I would even say ugly) language, never mind the other issues, which I think I addressed clearly in the other venue. I am of course an ally and when reasonable an advocate for disadvantaged parties, and I try to help without overstepping in that role, and that was a big part of it. But also, I am one of those lost Sherlockians who has been knocking at the gilded club doors for years. I really love Sherlock Holmes and I want to have a tribe, but the Sherlockian world has just not been that into me. I can count a handful of kind, even generous, souls, but I can also count a score of haughty, self-important jerks and guess who has a stranglehold on the most prestigious organizations in the Sherlockian faith? And so I have resigned myself to being an itinerant, nonconformist Sherlockian, but it shouldn't be that way, for anyone.

    1. Thanks, Robert. Itinerant, nonconformist Sherlockians are the true heart of this hobby -- I mean, look at who our hero is -- so you shouldn't ever feel too alone. Keep exploring, as there is so much Sherlockian fun outside the castle walls these days.

    2. Thank you. For what it is worth you are one of the good ones in my book. You probably don't remember but a couple of years ago I was trying to track down an old census of Sherlockians that had been published in a defunct journal that you had catalogued and you were very kind and helpful.

      At the risk of belaboring the point, upon re-reading this I don't think I ever explicitly stated the argument that was in my head. So: To me, the problem with exclusion-oriented barrier societies is that they legitimize unfortunate behavior and attitudes that trickle down through and poison the whole community. So while I have never been personally rejected by the Speckled Band, I do feel I have been negatively impacted by the barrier society mindset and this incident, and the comments that followed, were a microcosm of this experience. Thanks for your time, I will show myself out.