…is that I get invited to participate in stuff like this:
For those of you who somehow managed to miss it on the other FTBlogs, yesterday a group of us, along with Rebecca Watson of Skepchick, convened online to host the first (and, judging by the response from the other folks, not the last) Google+ hangout forum. We were discussing, among other things, sexual harassment at skepty/athie conferences like The Amazing Meeting, and specifically the piss-poor way in which DJ Grothe of JREF was handling the issue.
It practically goes without saying that I enjoyed the shit out of myself.
I said it jokingly, but I was serious in my self-appraisal as someone who was more or less a dispassionate third-party observer. I don’t really have a dog in this fight – I wasn’t ever planning on going to TAM, and it had nothing to do with any kind of sexual harassment policy. It just doesn’t really interest me a great deal – the stuff that I care about doesn’t really fall under TAM’s umbrella, and unless the JREF decides to suddenly adopt a radically different mission in life, I don’t see that changing. This isn’t a criticism – TAM should keep doing what has apparently been a very successful event – it just means that I don’t really care either way if TAM succeeds. I’ve therefore intentionally stayed out of the discussion, because I don’t really have that much to contribute besides saying “I agree with Stephanie Zvan” until my vocal chords are hoarse.
That being said, I did have two main points that I wished to contribute to the discussion around this issue:
1. There is a simple fix to the immediate problem of harassment
The problem isn’t that people get sexually harassed at conferences. Yes, that is a problem, but it is not the problem. Nobody is even remotely suggesting that TAM is uniquely full of creepshows and serial rapists. Anyone who thinks that this is an exercise in “TAM is a bad conference because women will get raped” is seriously reading a lot of their own dialogue into the discussion. Calm down. Have a pretzel.
The problem is and always has been the way in which complaints about harassment (which are routine in any type of gathering) are handled by the organizers. Feminist voices have been saying this all along – it’s symptomatic of how non-male participants are thought of in the context of the larger movement. If I’m going to a place where I know I’m going to encounter a lot of unwelcome behaviour (e.g., sexual harassment), and I know that I will have nobody to complain to, and nothing will get done except that someone will condescendingly tell me to grow a “thicker skin”, then why on Earth would I want to go to that? Why would it surprise anyone that I’d opt out of something like that?
The issue is one of response – do we behave as though we care and are listening to people who say that they have a problem, or do we ignore them? Or do we do what Mr. Grothe has done and blame people for bringing up the problem in the first place? Or do we heap abuse on anyone who speaks up for themselves and then turn around and express our bafflement that people don’t report incidents more often.
The answer is pretty simple: we can change the story of sexual assault at conferences from the current one (“sexual harassment happens at conferences”) to a better one (“sexual harassment happens at conferences, and it is unacceptable, and here’s what we do when it happens”). If I knew that the behaviour I find troubling was treated seriously, and that there would be repercussions for anyone who does it if I complain, then that’s one less impediment to my participation. It’s not complicated; at least, it shouldn’t be complicated.
2. This fight is part of a much larger issue
There is a non-trivial proportion of the skeptic/atheist/freethought community who feel that these kind of discussions are not valid. They don’t necessarily believe that anything that I or Jason or Rebecca have said are incorrect, they think they’re irrelevant. Any time these issues come up, therefore, we will get hooting and hollering from the people who are “tired of talking about this” or who think we have “better things to discuss”.
These people are wrong. And they are assholes.
I agree with Dan Fincke that values and other philosophical topics need to become part of the mainstream discussion. It may be inadvisable to try and establish a singular secular morality, but we should absolutely be applying the principles of skepticism to social issues like feminism and anti-racism. We should have discussions about these things because they matter. Yes, racism homophobia and misogyny don’t often lend themselves to empirical testing, but we can certainly measure their effects and talk about the best ways to combat them.
To the people who say that our movement isn’t about these non-physical issues, I say quite the contrary – we are the best-equipped group to be making progress on them. And as we try to expand our numbers and see bigger turnouts to things like TAM, we have to reach out to different types of people. That means we need to have these conversations, because that’s how the world works. You don’t get to tell people their presence and input are valued, but only if they restrict their input to the topics that you decide are ‘relevant’. The community decides that for themselves.
Until we are able to get that message across, that these kinds of topics deserve discussion and that they are part of our growth and progress as a social movement, we will keep having fights like this. And there will keep being assholes who stand on the sidelines and chastise ‘both sides’ for fighting about things that aren’t “important”.
That being said, it is fairly obvious that I was the comic relief of the group (a role that I was overjoyed to play). It was a fun way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon, and I got to make the lone elevator joke at Rebecca’s expense so it was totes worth it just for that.
If you can’t watch the video or missed something, Kate Donovan has generously transcribed the panel discussion.
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