I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to share my experience of the convention with people. I figure that even if few people read them, I’d like to look back at these posts in a few years and remember how enjoyable it was. In case you missed some, here are the recaps of:
In case it wasn’t obvious from those four posts, I had an amazing time. I don’t regularly get the opportunity to travel out of town for these conventions, and it was kind of American Atheists to host this particularly enormous event in my home town. I loved the speakers, but just getting to meet and swap stories with people who have influenced me or been influenced by me, was really enjoyable.
Jerry DeWitt’s Sunday “sermon” probably captured the spirit of the convention better than anything else. If we don’t have a God to answer to, if we don’t have an afterlife to look forward to, then what do we atheists have? We have each other. We have our friends, our supporters, our networks, and our loved ones… all of which elevate us above anything we can accomplish individually.
Attentive readers will have noticed that quite a lot of the speakers I described touched on the inclusiveness of women and minorities as an important theme in their talks. On Friday, Richard Carrier. On Saturday, the panel with Beth, Amy, Greta, and Ophelia. On Sunday, Ophelia’s solo talk, then Cristina Rad, then the Godless Bitches. I got at least some amount of contact with all those people this weekend, they’re all fine individuals, and I agree with what they’re saying. The crowd of people who were attending, almost universally enjoyed their contributions.
Many people who were not attending, however, seemed not to.
On Friday Ophelia posted: “Brilliant – the #AAcon13 hashtag is being invaded by harassers. A lot. Good thinking! Way to demonstrate to a whole bunch of new people just what we’ve been talking about!” #AAcon13 was the official Twitter hashtag of the conference; since not every reader uses Twitter, a brief explanation is that if you post about the convention, you are supposed to include the tag in your post; then readers who are interested in convention-related tweets can search for the tag and find relevant posts.
In this case though, they manage to find a lot of angry people who were less interested in talking about the convention than insulting the people on the panels. While Matt Dillahunty was giving his advice about being rational and skeptical, apparently the Twitter feed was being flooded with dozens of messages like this one:
First up, skepticism of feminism which is attempting to usurp the atheist/skeptic communities. #aacon13
Comparing median incomes of men and women with no controls and calling pay gap- so #skepticial [link to an old blog post] … #aacon13
“An Open Plea to Advocates of Atheism Plus, Apologize and Then Start Over” [blog link] #aacon13 #atheismplus
These tweets were connected to Matt’s talk only by the slimmest of threads, did not reference his content at all, and were mainly used as an excuse to complain about other gripes the posters had had with him in the past.
I met Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism at the convention and have begun following his blog. He had to leave early and posted this:
Off to the airport. Sorry I have to leave early, but thanks for all the fun! #aacon13
This was followed up a few minutes later by an apparent parody tweeter who has nothing better to do than watch his twitter feed and post this:
Got to go to the airport now! Try not to rape anyone, as per the con policy. #AACon13
The weirdest moment of all, to me, was when my first recap post, full of pictures I had taken, got called out in this odd hashtag reference war, with the following explanation:
It’s against #aacon13 policy to have electronic devices on during talks…but who knows, with all those pics out there…
I just find it funny that the #FreethoughtBlogs people don’t bother to follow their own policies. #aacon13 #Atheismplus
It’s all posturing, apparently…or a horribly written conference policy no one cares about. How can the women be safe? #aacon13
Yeah, I thought #FreethoughtBlogs cared about da womenz! Don’t they care about da womenz? #aacon13 #Atheismplus
There was, indeed, a policy mentioning that cell phones should be turned off; but it was pretty obviously a matter of “please don’t let your ringer go off during the talks so you don’t bother people.” Having caught these complaints, Matt Dillahunty alerted me to the issue, and then took all of five minutes to check in with the conference organizers, who immediately posted this clarification:
@AmericanAtheist: Attn #AAcon13: Wrt electronics policy: Video rec is not permitted. Still photos = yes. Live tweeting = ENCOURAGED. NO CELL PHONES RINGING.
So I guess I got out of being kicked out that time. Whew!
What’s weird about all this is that obviously the tweeters weren’t genuinely concerned that I might be disrupting the conference. They were trying to call out the perceived “hypocrisy” of having and enforcing any kind of code of conduct whatsoever. American Atheists was among the first groups to write up an anti-harassment policy, and a lot of people complained that such policies are pointless, unnecessary, and restrictive. I heard a lot of discussion about how the policies implied that no one at a convention is ever allowed to have sex with anyone, even their own spouses.
This kind of rules lawyering is pretty funny when you think about it. The intent of having convention rules is to make sure that people are comfortable and having a good time, and to cover the possibility that there might be obnoxious pests who ruin other people’s experience. They are written by humans, so they are subject to errors; but they are also enforced by humans, who are usually competent enough not to kick someone out of a building for violating the letter of the law without causing real problems. So that was interesting.
I mentioned earlier that I had an enjoyable discussion with Dan Fincke; we were hanging out by the second floor railing, but at one point we were rudely interrupted by some guy I never saw before. He strode up to us, said he was looking for Matt Dillahunty but I’d do as a substitute, and then asked “Do you know if Matt regrets his misguided support for Atheism Plus?”
“No, he doesn’t,” I answered.
“That’s interesting, because he talked about being RATIONAL earlier, but he doesn’t understand how feminism is ruining the atheist movement, and that’s not very rational.”
I rolled my eyes and said “Excuse me, I was in the middle of a conversation with this guy here. Go away, please.”
He did go away, shouting over his shoulder, “That’s what they all tell me! You all avoid facing the truth!”
A few hours later, when Beth, Greta, Amy, and Ophelia were speaking at a scheduled women’s panel, Paul Cooper — president of the Texas Freethought Convention — took a photo of the stage and posted it on Facebook. Within minutes a stranger had posted: “lol the single worst group of individuals that hijacked the title of atheism to spew their venom…”
Paul replied: “Hi, please elaborate.”
He didn’t elaborate. So I posted, “Perhaps he is intentionally providing an ironic avant-garde demonstration of what they have been talking about for the last hour.” …and that was pretty much the end of it.
On an individual basis, these incidents I mention are trivial. They mostly don’t amount to anything like harassment or attacks. They are, however, part of a disappointing pattern which I feel runs counter to the spirit of the convention. Richard Carrier’s talk on Friday was generally well-received. He talked about genuine examples of harassment that had occurred online, receiving a lot of gasps at the appropriate times, nods and smiles at his largely positive message, and a standing ovation when he was finished. Later it went up on YouTube, and a few days after that it was discovered by hundreds of people who didn’t attend the convention, who moved to give it “thumbs down.”
In my view, this kind of behavior is not only disruptive to community building, but it’s also damaging and discouraging of participation from new people. When people are interested in following news about the convention via outlets like Twitter, the link spam comes across as confusing. If they choose to participate in the conversations, they often find themselves under attack from strangers. For all the claims of those who participate that they are worried that the movement is being “damaged”, they are choosing to highlight their claims via immature and disruptive behavior; not because they themselves are being harmed, but simply because they have an ideological bone to pick.
I don’t enjoy writing about this sort of behavior. I realize that some view it as venting division and conflict within atheist groups. In fact, I had a conversation about exactly this with Amy Roth last Sunday. We chatted about my approach when writing my recent post for Skepchick, and then I said that it’s frustrating and energy draining to have to deal with these issues, and much easier to just grit my teeth and ignore it.
And Amy said, in a nutshell… I should suck it up. She’s blunt like that, and I appreciate it about her. I have friends who don’t always have the luxury of ignoring it and moving on. People I talk to regularly with online, people I see every week, people I’ve met and shaken hands with and hugged at the convention. Many of them are going to be scorned, ridiculed for being women, photoshopped on naked pictures, or have people regularly responding to serious posts by talking about their looks or fuckability, or lack thereof. I don’t want those people to be intimidated or chased out of the community, and I think we should all take a little time to stand up for being decent to each other.