Hemant has a post from Todd Stiefel up today. It’s about Todd’s concerns with the way anti-harassment policies are shaking out. Mostly he’s concerned that they are focusing on the negative. He makes what I think are some reasonable suggestions and one I am pretty sure we as a movement simply aren’t grown up enough to handle.
First, some policies turn offensive words into harassment. Yes, words can amount to harassment, but we need to be careful here because “offensive” is often used as a weapon to silence dissent. There is an example anti-harassment policy on Geek Feminism Wiki that has been used as a template for several of our conferences. This includes the phrase, “Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion.” This line begs the question, what constitutes offensive?
Even here, Todd is being quite reasonable. He makes a suggestion for language that he does like.
My point is that “offensive” is not equivalent to harassment and should be avoided in our policies. I much prefer the way CFI’s draft policy (PDF) addresses this point. It says, “Prohibited conduct includes, but is not limited to, harassment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other protected group status, as provided by local, state, or federal law. By way of example, abusive conduct directed at someone because of their race is prohibited,” and “Critical examination of beliefs does not, by itself, constitute harassment.”
There is nothing wrong per se with Todd’s position. My only problem is that I’m not sure we’re grown up enough to understand what abuse is. Let me explain why.
Yes, “offensive” is highly subjective. Sometimes that’s the point. Sometimes privileging the subjective is the only way to get people to listen to a person’s viewpoint.
How many times have people already been told in this big debate that what happened to them wasn’t abusive or wasn’t harassment? How many times have they been told something was “just” friendly or “just” a request for sex or “just” their imagination that anything was happening at all? How many times have they been told something was “just” the way things are?
“Abusive” is an emotionally charged word. It implies a judgment that people in these movements have shown themselves perpetually unwilling to make. Instead, a fair number of people who are not otherwise problematic people keep talking about “both sides” in ongoing arguments.
The facts of the matter here are that Rebecca Watson and the outspoken feminists of FtB and a few of the people we talk with and about have a bunch of cyberstalkers. These are people who get together to talk about what we write, our speeches, our tweets, our postings on Facebook, pictures of us available on the web. They glean the personal information we use to make ourselves and our topics more relatable and go back years to try to dig up dirt. They lie when they can’t find anything ugly enough for them. They built a wiki dedicated to us. Not only that, but every bit of them talking about this stuff is meant to damage us. We have cyberstalkers.
What is the reaction to this? Very little frankly. The media company that wanted to go more family-friendly is still hosting the stalking activity, now under their very own logo. (Thanks, National Geographic!) Despite the fact that we’ve been talking about this for months, and dealt publicly with two threats to conference speakers that have come from our stalkers, people still claim we have no reason to ever feel threatened.
People argue with us in public places–which is fine–with no plan for dealing with our stalkers–which isn’t, because it means we can’t interact with our critics without interacting with our stalkers. Then people get on our cases for being insular if we protect ourselves by staying away. They, with the best of intentions, aid the people who are trying to shut us out of the public conversation because they can’t or won’t believe the situation is real.
More than that, though, people are still jumping on our backs about how we treat these stalkers and how we treat the people who give our cyberstalkers new fora for harassing us and repeating their lies about us. Ask an Atheist tells us we’re being dogmatic when we shut them down in our own spaces based on the lies and harassment elsewhere. If we take matters into our own hands, we become the villains, despite the fact that no one else is willing to lift a finger to fix this.
And woe be it upon us if we get angry at the people who will not help. If we get angry at the people who refuse to look at the problem long enough to see it for what it is, oh, we are the criminals. We are attacking our “friends”, friends who do nothing to help us when we are in trouble and who legitimize our stalkers by talking to them as they were reasonable people, not obsessives with blood–literal or figurative–on their minds.
If we get angry at the lack of help, just once in months of scrutiny and lies, then we can be held up as the example of the bad people, because the good people refuse to look, refuse to act, refuse to deal with the uncomfortable reality that there are people out there who have dedicated themselves to doing something bad. If we slip even a little bit, we have done the work of our stalkers and destroyed ourselves. Because my word about what has been going on is no good, and no one else will do the work to figure it out.
So, no, I don’t have much faith that our movements can make sound judgments about the difference between “offensive” and “abusive”. As much respect as I have more most of the conference organizers I’ve met or talked to recently, I don’t think the judgments we make collectively favor anyone but the abusers. And I don’t think that other people who get targeted for this kind of abuse will trust otherwise either.