Do We Need Gatekeepers? Or, Robert Heinlein disappointed me (once).

I don’t like gatekeepers. By definition, a gatekeeper is someone who stands at a point of entry or exit and intercepts anyone trying to use that entrance or exit. In some cases, they just slow down traffic, in others, they tell people that they’re not allowed through the door.

I don’t like TSA, even though we’re guilted into believing we should. I don’t like receipt checkers at stores, who expect you to queue up in a line, afteryou’ve paid for your purchases, but before you’re allowed to leave the store. I don’t like locks on doors. They’re a nuisance. I don’t like big, burly men (or women) with lists at the doors of parties.

“Nobody likesthese things,” you might deflect, “but we have to have them! Without locks on doors, and people at the door, people would trespass, people would steal, people would take up illegal residence in other peoples’ homes and offices.”

I disagree with pretty much everything in that statement.

First, I want to make clear that I dolike Mickey, and Donna, and Bob, and John, and Rick, and all the other gatekeepers who guard the buildings where I work. They’re friendly and helpful people, and they have a job to do, which also includes helping people find offices they’re looking for, and calling for assistance when someone is in trouble. And they happen never to tell me I can’t enter, because my badge is already on display around my neck, on my Shore Leave 25 lanyard. (Yeah, the co-founder of Farpoint should probably wear a Farpoint lanyard, but I guess I like to draw attention to others.) The gatekeepers I work with are good people, and I dolike them. Most of my co-workers do, too. So, yeah, a lot of people like the peopledoing the gatekeeping, and it sucks that nice people who are just doing their jobs probably get treated poorly by people to whom they have to say, “No,” or “Slow Down.”

Second, I suspect a lot of people dolike the practice of gatekeeping, as long as it allows their sortthrough the gate, and keeps the other sortout. Build a wall and let Mexico pay for it, anyone? Gated community, anyone? Exclusive party, anyone? If we give into our darker natures, it makes us feel good that we’re getting something that others are not getting. If we give into our reallydarker natures, it makes us feel even better if we receive this special treatment not because of any particular talent or ability, or history of good works, but simply because we know the right people.

I’m an individualist. I don’t like people who play cronyist games, and I don’t like being told “no.” “That’s immature!” you might cry.

Maybe.  But the basic assumption behind gatekeeping is that the person who is keeping the gate is better able to determine my fitness to pass the gate than I am. That may or may not be true. And the affiliated assumptions are even more pernicious. TSA is there because we now assume that all people who want to board planes may be terrorists. Receipt checkers are there because we now assume that all people who want to leave a store may be thieves. Locks on our doors are there because we assume that anyone entering our home or office is there to harm us or our property.

Gatekeeping is all about usand them.

I’ve never liked convention security. As my regular readers know, I co-founded a convention 25 years ago, and I was its Chairman or Director or title to that effect for eight years. Since then, I’ve been in various “consulting” roles, under various titles. But it was not until I stepped down that my convention, Farpoint, had a head of security, in the sense that most conventions do. We had a head of guest security, yes. But there was no job, under my watch, for someone who strutted around with a radio and commanded a squadron of black-clad, paramilitary agents who interacted with the general public with the brand “Security” on their breasts. We did have badge-checkers. I’m not completely sprouty and granola-crunching. But I called them “customer service.” And they were expected to assist, not intimidate. Since my wacky-doodle ass is no longer fully in charge, Farpoint has security, and it’s run by very nice people. So rest easy.

But while I recognize that, in an imperfect world, we can’t allow everyone all access, I also recognize that rules and mechanisms which bar access are usually only followed by rule-following people. The lock on your door does not keep me out because I can’t open it. I can, I promise you. It keeps me out because I know you don’t want me rooting through your stuff while you’re not home, or walking in on you while you’re doing naked yoga and watching reruns of Glee. And I respect that. Also, I have no desire to re-watch Glee.

Gatekeeping does not stop theft, or terrorism, or school-shootings, or industrial espionage. It does not stop people from moving into homes they don’t own. (There are whole websites telling you how, through squatting, you can take over someone’s house—even their primary residence!)

So why do we tolerate gatekeeping? Two reasons, I think. One, as I already mentioned, is that it kinda gives us an ego boost to know that we’re getting something that not everyone is getting. Two, because it makes us feelsecure. My mother has a ritual, and my father had it before he died, of going around the house and locking every door, to make sure no one enters without them knowing about it. I certainly think it’s a good idea, but I’ve also pointed out that, seriously, there are 21 windows at ground level on their house. And my Dad helpfully left bricks all over the yard. Anyone who wantsto get in is going to get in. And anyone who respects the locked door is someone who could be trusted to walk in, even if you didn’t know they were there, provided you’re careful with warning signs about your naked-Glee-yoga hours.

But locking the doors is a ritual that makes my mother feel secure. So she keeps doing it. That, and, at least if someone breaks a window to enter, they’ve committed an extra crime with which they can be charged. Of course, if they’ve come to squat, the helpful squatting website tells them to just say the window was already broken when they got there, so they weren’t wrong to enter the house and start living there.

Bottom line, gatekeeping is largely about a false sense of security, and also largely about usand them.

Why am I on about gatekeeping? Two reasons. First, it’s a popular term used in the publishing world, particularly the science fiction publishing world, to explain why self-publishing and micro-press publishing are bad ideas. I hear it all the time. “We need gatekeepers, so that bad books and stories don’t make it to the public.” “A good editor is a gatekeeper, and he or she helps an author make their work better.” “Good editors and publishers know quality. You can trust that the works they select will meet standards.”

The counter-arguments to all of this, are elementary and obvious: bad stories do make it to the public. Most editors aren’t good editors. (Remember Sturgeon’s Law!) One man’s quality is another man’s off-brand-one-ply toilet paper that falls apart when you try to use it and in the name of God would you spend a few extra pennies and buy the good stuff please and thank you?
To defend the first point: Fifty Shades of Gray.

On the second point, good editors, I’m reading a very enjoyable book right now called Voyage from Yesteryearby James P. Hogan. There’s a lot of good I can say about it, but there’s also a lot of bad. Slow introduction, too damned many interchangeable characters, and a brain-dump exposition chapter in the middle about quarks and photons and muons that should be excised, burned, re-written, burned, summarized, burned, and then taken out back and shot after being forced to dig its own grave.

In other words, why didn’t the editor editthis book? Answer: Because the editor was merely being a gatekeeper, not a creative advisor. Probably, once the book was accepted, the editor was too busy to make it a better work. There were likely a lot of deadlines and a lot of other projects involved. But that editor, whoever he or she was, didn’t earn the title “good editor,” at least on this project.

Finally, as to knowing quality, well, Robert A. Heinlein knew quality. Obviously he did, because he produced it, reliably, for almost fifty years. But I once purchased several paperbacks by an author named Daniel Galouye, because Heinlein’s biographer said that Galouye was one of the Grandmaster’s favorite authors. I only read one of the books, and won’t read the others, most likely. Myfavorite author produced quality, but he didn’t hold others to the standards to which he, himself, worked. I did not enjoy the books that RAH apparently did, even though I love and constantly re-read RAH’s works. One man’s quality.

The other reason I’m on about gatekeeping? It’s because of aNew York Times article available here.My wife Renee brought this article to my attention, after Mike Rowe referenced it on his blog. He was explaining why he bothers to engage with people who disagree with him, and basically used this article to explain that the ideas we object to, find offensive, obscene or seditious, may be very important. The Intellectual Dark Web exists because thinkers from all over the political spectrum became concerned that ideaswere being suppressed, by the press, by academia, by arbiters of taste and fashion.

But the author of this article from the Times, which is an opinion piece, not a news article, is a bit dubious about the whole thing, and concludes with the quote:

“I get the appeal of the I.D.W. I share the belief that our institutional gatekeepers need to crack the gates open much more. I don’t, however, want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all.”

Any why does the author not want to live in such a culture? Because it makes her feel secureto know that objectionable ideas will not come across her radar? Because she fears that others might hear dangerous ideas and take dangerous actions based on them? Because she believes there are ideas that should notsee the light of day? All of the above, I’m willing to bet. Why not just stand up in the face of objectionable ideas and say, “I don’t believe that,” or “that’s irrational,” or “that thinking is based on misconception and falsehood?” Why not just be a smart consumer in the information marketplace?

Because being a smart consumer is hard. It’s always possible you’ll be taken in. Just as, in the supermarket, you might try to save some pennies on a bag of coffee and discover that it’s flavorless swill, so, in the information marketplace, you might absorb into your life’s philosophical infrastructure an idea that’s just plain wacky. Anyone can be fooled, right? So you need better, smarter people to protect you from wrong thinking, and especially to protect your neighbors from wrong thinking—not to act as a sounding board against it, but to stop it before it gets into their heads.

And this points to another, more pernicious, less oft-stated argument in favor of gatekeeping: The public doesn’t know what’s good and what isn’t, so someone needs to tell them.

This, of course, is elitist BULLSHIT. There is, it’s true, always someone smarter than you are—someone more rational, someone more informed, someone better trained. And there’s nothing wrong with seeking such people’s advice when you’re confronted with a difficult choice or need help solving a problem. Doctors. Lawyers. Plumbers. All of these people have knowledge we don’t, and their advice can save our money and literally save our lives. But you wouldn’t want your doctor standing at your door, telling you whether or not you’re allowed to enter your home (unless it’s become a plague house. Special case.) And neither do I think you’d wanting him telling you, not just that you can’t read someone else’s ideas, but that you’re not even allowed to know that those ideas exist.

No one is that smart, that gifted, that wise.

We do not need gatekeepers in the information marketplace. All we need are hard workers who are willing to fill the potholes in the streets, repair the tentpoles when they begin to sag, and help transport the goods to the stalls. And we need good merchants. The best way to recognize bad merchandise is not to have someone tell you it’s bad. It’s to have good merchandise sitting beside the bad, so you can compare the two for yourself.

And remember… One man’s quality.


Leave a Reply