Judging Judges

Posted: May 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

After the Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam Finals last night, I was approached by someone who had valid concerns about something that happened during the show.

We talked about the problem. I completely concurred with their take on the situation but also explained to them how we were really unable to do anything about it.

It did make me think that this was something worth discussing. As a Slam Nerd, I am always interested in how to make slam better.

So, here goes…

We have talked about Safe Space a lot and how the ideals we look to achieve are sometimes countered by the different ideals of slam. On a basic level, if we insist that the slam stage is an opportunity to speak, with all that entails, what happens when someone being ‘honest’ (quotes intentional) equates to that person being sexist or racist or homophobic or transphobic or just generally being an awful person?

Well, what we do at CapSlam is to encourage our audience to let the offender know about it. While we encourage a supportive audience, it does not need to be BLINDLY supportive. If someone is sexist, let rip with your best HISS. Don’t applaud just because you are SUPPOSED to. Let them know.

(Please note: I am talking about people being OFFENSIVE, not just because you didn’t think a poem was that good. For the most part, poets don’t step up to a mic and have instant awesomeness. Support growth.)

Other scenes do NOT allow such material. They have Codes of Conduct (or similar) and poets breaking it won’t be allowed to continue to compete on their stage. SpoCan has such a Code. CapSlam does not. (Though that will be a topic of discussion at the CPC AGM this year, I expect.)

Now some of you may have seen me calling a few poets out for this sort of behaviour. This isn’t some policy. This is just me, expressing my own displeasure at seeing our stage and mic used to spread what I consider hate speech. I will keep doing that regardless, because I can.

Having said ALL OF THAT, what I wanted to talk about today is a whole different problem. Judges.

We know what slam is and what it is supposed to represent. Slam tries to be ‘the democratization of art’. The judges are there as representatives of the audience.

There are very specific problems that come out of that. I was a guest speaker at a class on Canadian Feminism at Carleton earlier this year and when we talked about women in slam, I let them in at what I had learned. There is sexism in slam. (Wow, big shock, right?) It isn’t always as simple as men getting better scores or whatever… it is sometimes more insidious. One of the easy examples is to watch what happens when a man makes himself emotionally vulnerable on stage. The audience is moved. He is rewarded. Now watch what happens when a woman does the same thing.

It isn’t that the woman is punished for doing that. It is that she isn’t rewarded for it. It is considered normal behaviour.

When you think about it, this is gender stereotyping against both men AND women, but as usual, we know who comes out better for it.

So? Is there something inherently wrong with slam that allows this?

I think that is looking at the wrong root problem. There is something inherently wrong with SOCIETY.

The people making these judgements are not slam experts or poetry experts. They are a random selection of audience members so why would we assume that they are someone (on average) more enlightened than any selection of people from society? Just because they came to a poetry show? A nice thought and maybe true to a LIMITED extent, but not enough to eliminate biases throughout society.

But this is still not what I want to talk about.

I needed this part of the discussion as a grounding, to ensure people knew where I am coming from.

No, I am not saying what do we do about the fact the judges reflect society and society is far from completely egalitarian. Instead, I need to talk about what we can do when there is a judge that is blatantly biased along such lines. What can we do when a judge decides based on personal politics/beliefs that they are going to punish someone for talking about feminist issues, or gender issues? (Or racial issues or…)

This is a whole other problem.

On the one hand, we do not screen judges based on politics, nor should we. On the other hand, giving the results of the event over to someone who is using to act out misogyny or transphobia? (And exulting in it, and celebrating every time he shot down someone who said things that challenged his view on how the world should work.)

I’m not talking about a low-ball judge. There is nothing wrong with those, as long as they are consistent. I am talking about a judge that gave a 10 to one poet and a 6.5 to another. The gap was not based on merit. (I am not talking about the ranking either. Which poet was better was completely up to the judges. I am not calling down the poets that did well, at all.)

I want this conversation to be about more than one incident, because it deserves to be.

The question is, how do you choose judges? Let’s dispense with the idea that these judges are random. We always SAY there are random judges but they aren’t. Why? Someone chooses them. Anything that is chosen like that is not random, even if the selection process is not conscious.

Often judges are chosen with an attempt at ‘fairness’. Don’t choose five men. Don’t choose five women. Don’t choose five people all around the same age or with the same racial background etc.

Barring an actual random method (which I dream about… yes, I dream about organizing slams… I am THAT much of a slam nerd…), it will always be thus.

So, who DON’T you pick? There is no automatic answer to this (other than people with known ties to poets in the competition). This is especially problematic in an event with a relatively small crowd. Sometimes there aren’t a lot of choices to be made.

Do you have an official ‘no’ list? People you won’t allow to be judges? I certainly have such a list when I am picking judges (since, as I said, it is not random and I am making decisions as I choose), but this is not an official list that is given to other people when THEY are making the selections.

What do you do? Is there anything you can do DURING a show when a judge has taken it upon themself to become the show?

Soliciting ideas…

  1. Any chance of putting together a judge registry? No real formal application or anything. Just an ongoing pool of folks who have judged before and did a decent job of it. It sounds like you already have such a thing in your head. Is there any reason why it can’t be written down? Maybe on a “small crowd” night you don’t have five “registered judges” but that’s just an opportunity to expand the registry. You dig?

    • rpriske says:

      My concern then is that we are getting AWAY from what slam is supposed to be. You shouldn’t need criteria to say you are proficient at judging slam.

      It is a very complicated issue to the point where someone as opinionated as I am, still doesn’t have a solid opinion.

  2. K says:

    I say let it be. When I used to frequent, I used to hear all the big names talk poem choice strategy. Judges are girls? put on that swag/romance. Judges look like hipsters: bring on the heroic rebel. Or something to that effect. Poets play the judges and audiences. I know most say it’s almost random, but it’s not, the best win because they play the game. So if the poets are playing the judge game why should you (yes you rusty), change the rules to favor what? bias preferences? Bias preferences? That’s the way the game works. If you hand the judging board to a judgemental religious type (the kind that have holier-than-thou attitudes and beliefs) and someone goes up and does a piece about woman power and sexuality and she gets a bad score, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the poet’s problem. Because if the poet went up and did the same piece in front of a feminist she would have scored a perfect 10. This is slam, the judges are random, you play the game by writing poetry that appeals to the emotions of society. That is what poetry has always been: a reflection of society, why do you want to put your own limits on it’s representation with rules on its judges? To me that would be working in the wrong direction.

    • K says:

      I just wanted to add, that the same woman would did the woman power poem of my example could have chosen a different piece for the night. Just as a winning poet would score less well with a sexy poem to the same judge than his prayers for humanity poem. Winning poets play the game.

      If you want start restrictions on content bias, would you begin restrictions on celebrity bias?

    • rpriske says:

      And this is exactly where I have been leaning.

      I am alway sopen to questioning “how things are done”. Just because somethign HAS been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it should.

      Having said that, I don’t see a way to make it better, when it comes to picking judges. For everything that improves, something else is damaged.

      This is a good discussion to have, though.

  3. misskitty79 says:

    There are racists/sexists/misogynists throughout society that we all have to learn how to work around. I’m not saying that’s the way life should be, but expecting slam groups to have a magic solution is pretty naive, I think.
    Of course, if you want to try, you might want to take a cue from the teevee show, The Voice. Their judges aren’t permitted to *watch* the singers, thereby being forced to judge on voice alone. Perhaps some aspect of that could be of assistance in forcing judges to be more impartial?

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