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In Defense of Conferences #sk6

This morning as I was sitting in my horrifically delayed plane to Missouri for Skepticon, I had this exchange on Twitter.

I don’t mean to pick on Ali at all; he stated his argument well (even though I think I’m right and he’s wrong!) and was really great about listening to my take on it and walking back his statements once he realized where he’d been missing information. (Thanks for being such a great argument buddy, Ali!) However, Twitter being what it is, I don’t think I was really able to adequately explain my view on this and why conferences are so important to me. So I’m going to do it here, not as a jab at Ali or anyone else specific, but just as a response to a claim I encounter fairly frequently.

I guess I take this a bit personally because of the nature of my involvement in social justice, progressivism, and activism (it’s literally going to be my entire career, as well as what I do during a significant portion of my free time) as well as my own history in this community (going to these conferences and meeting these people is probably the reason I don’t have clinical depression anymore). It also stung to read these comments as I was en route to a con where I’d be giving a workshop that’s aimed at preventing sexual harassment and assault. Like, you’re going to claim I’m not doing anything worthwhile? Really?

But I know everyone isn’t me, so I tried to set that aside and examine the claims more objectively (not that objectivity is ever actually achievable). I still don’t think they have much merit.

First of all, basically every professional field and every hobby or interest has conferences. I’ve never heard of one that doesn’t. Researchers have conferences to share their research, tech developers have conferences to show off new products, mental health professionals and educators have conferences to discuss best practices and learn from each others’ experiences, and so on. Writers both amateur and professional have conferences to learn new skills, hear other writers’ work, and network with agents and publishers. When I was a sexual health peer educator in college, we even went to conferences just for health peer education to present our workshops to other peer educators who might provide valuable feedback and adopt some of our methods for themselves.

Nobody, I hope, would argue that a therapist is engaging in a “circlejerk” by spending a weekend sharing their experiences with other therapists as opposed to treating clients. Or that a research scientist is engaging in a “circlejerk” by spending a weekend listening to presentations on other people’s research rather than working on their own project in the lab. Or that a writer is engaging in a “circlejerk” by spending a weekend networking with potential publishers rather than being holed up in the coffee shop with their manuscript.

But activists, for some reason, are expected to always, always be “on.” If we’re not out there protesting or fundraising or educating or arguing or volunteering or otherwise Creating Change, we’re “circlejerking.”

Does this seem convoluted to you? It does to me.

People who criticize conferences on these grounds seem to be making a very similar strawman as people who criticize so-called “slacktivism” (in fact, I’m sure there is significant overlap between those two groups). Does anyone actually believe that changing their profile picture on Facebook is an act of Serious World-Changing Activism? I doubt it. Does anyone actually believe that attending Skepticon or a similar conference is an act of Serious World-Changing Activism? I doubt that too.

From what I gather, people who attend secular/skeptical/otherwise progressive conferences do so for a number of reasons:

  • To learn new things
  • To make new friends
  • To see old friends
  • To network and find new opportunities for jobs or volunteering or other activisty things
  • To feel a sense of belonging and acceptance
  • To feel a sense of hope
  • To have fun

I believe that all of these goals are important. I think they can be as important as Changing The World. And while people might not go to conferences with the explicit goal of Changing The World while they are there, the things they learn and experience at conferences might help them to eventually do so.

And I have to say, Changing The World is very hard when you feel alone, unsupported, and unaware of what else is out there.

Personally, I can speak to most of the reasons on that list. I learn new things at conferences all the time. One of the talks that stuck most with me from last year’s Skepticon, for instance, was Jennifer Oulette’s talk on drugs, their potential health benefits, and the difficulties of researching them since they’re illegal. That was an issue I’d never really thought about! Now I feel much more prepared to seek out even more (scientifically accurate) information on that subject, advocate for more sensible drug policy, and correct misconceptions that people may have about drugs. I might never have run across this information otherwise, because it’s not my field and I can’t read every damn article on the internet.

Sometimes I learn things that are less immediately practical, but still extremely important. Another talk at last year’s Skepticon was Greta Christina’s on grief, secularism, and her own personal experiences with that intersection. I have not experienced a loss like Greta’s before. I do wonder what will happen when I inevitably experience such a loss, and how I will process it without faith. As a future mental health professional considering working with people who are leaving religion (or have recently left religion), helping people deal with grief without faith is extremely important to me. Her evocative talk was valuable both on a personal level (I care about Greta and want to know about her life) and on a professional level (I want to learn how people process grief and how I might be able to help them).

I could go on and on. This Skepticon is my 8th secular conference, and so many brilliant talk and speakers stand out to me from the past year and a half of my involvement in this community. I’ve learned so much. Reading articles on the internet just isn’t the same.

I think people–especially people who consider cons to be “circlejerks”–diminish or misunderstand the significance of learning at cons. Yes, we drink. Yes, we play Cards Against Humanity. Yes, we dress up in costumes or fancy clothes or whatever. Yes, we shoot the shit with friends. Yes, we hook up until ridiculous hours of the night/morning. But you’ll notice that the talks at conferences? They have audience members. Many of those audience members are so invested and interested in what’s being discussed that they laboriously live-tweet/-blog everything so that others can learn too. After the con, people write about their impressions of various talks and what they learned, or they repost videos of talks or even transcribe them so that they’re more accessible.

I don’t think I need to provide any more evidence that people learn at conferences and they value that learning.

But moving on to the less practical stuff. For instance, my incredible friends and colleagues, whom I’ve either met directly at conferences or through the people I’ve met at conferences, or whom I’ve really gotten to know at conferences. These people are 200% there all the time. The people I’ve met at conferences advocated for me when Facebook wouldn’t take my stupid death threat page down. They’ve gotten me speaking gigs and other opportunities. They help me with my writing, which is significant since I had very few writer friends until I got involved in all this. They post “<3″ or “*hug*” on my Facebook statuses when I’m struggling with depression or anxiety. They give me things to think about and they teach me every day. They are my lovers and partners. They are the people I’d call if I got mugged or lost a loved one or got a job or got an offer to have a book published. They are my chosen family.

It’s a common practice, especially among self-identified skeptics, to discount the importance of community, acceptance, belongingness, and mutual respect–all that touchy-feely shit many of us would rather ignore or pretend we don’t need. But we do.

Virtually everyone needs these things. But activists especially need them. Activism can be very alienating. Our efforts fail. People belittle or even threaten us. Apathy is pervasive. Nothing seems to change. Burnout is always on the horizon.

But then you show up in a huge building full of people who care about the things you care about*. Who want you to feel like you’re having an impact. Who want you to keep doing what you’re doing. Who come up to you just to tell you that your writing changed their life. Who will laugh at the trolls with you and shake with fury at the people who threaten you with death and cheer for you when you’re speaking and signal-boost for you when you’ve done something cool or you’re in a tight spot and need help. Who don’t make you explain over and over why we still need feminism or what’s so wrong with school prayer. Who don’t say “nerd” like it’s a bad thing.

This is what they call a “circlejerk.”

And if that’s a circlejerk, then pass me the lube.


*I am quite aware that cons do also have shitty people at them, but the point is that the ratio of awesome-to-shitty people is much better at these cons than in the world at large.


  1. says

    Remember when I said your blog might not be the best ever at everything? I take it all back. This is amazing and everything I want from the internet.

  2. Ali Nazifpour says

    First of all, I thank you very much for the nature and the content of your responses and this blog. I honestly don’t think I was stating my arguments very well – I was annoyed and my annoyance had gotten the better of me. I’ve made a mistake many make on social sites like Twitter – I was ranting. I do that sometimes in real life – but friends know you and your annoyed rants don’t come out the way they do. What I did was to take my general feelings against not only the skeptic community, but liberals in general, out against the Skepticon 6, and that was wrong.

    Now that I see my tweets after another, you can see the sweeping nature of them. I jump from one thing about a conference to very general thing about a whole (diverse) group of people, and that’s clearly wrong.

    What led me to this was a series of tweets by some of the skeptics I follow. Some of them like Sarah E. Mayhew kept ridiculing SK6 and some defended it and this debate sparked that in me. A similar thing had happened about TAM too a little while ago. This back and forth continued to annoy me, and I remained silent, until it came out.

    This is one of the bad things about being a radical. Your desire to uproot everything and to see confrontational fighting attitude everywhere blinds you to the merits of many other things. I have tried to correct my view on those things, and this could be one example. I am still a radical. I still criticize the skeptic community for not being radical enough. But, sk6 was a wrong venue to air that.

    And whatever happens and whatever arguments we have, I have unending respect for you and your work. I have always believed that the best kindness is to point out the errors of people. You have pointed our mine, and I thank you.

  3. says

    That. Was. Awesome.

    I am hoping that as my finances get stabilized in the next couple of years, I am able to attend some conferences. The ability to put faces and voices and body language to the people I’m activisting with online is invaluable to me; I don’t recognize people well from static pictures (I’m much, much better with video). So being able to see a person move and inhabit space and hear their speech with overtones and inflections and emotions is really priceless time for me.

    Plus, being an introvert and WAY into depression, I’m valuing any chance I get to interact with people who like the same things as I do. Whether that’s anime or atheism or feminism or communism, whatever, it helps me remember that I’m not alone doing it, puts video in my head of other people I know who are real and who are also pulling the same oars.

    So yeah. What you said.

  4. seraphymcrash says

    I’m impressed at how persuasive you were in the twitter exchange! I’m also surprised that Ali walked back his statements so much. This is all very atypical of a twitter argument (in a good way).

  5. mildlymagnificent says

    One thing I didn’t see explicitly on your list, though it was implied in several of your items.

    The most important thing I always felt after conferences of this sort – refreshed and re-energised. Constant activism, always being “on” whether you want it or not, opponents or “humorists” forever putting you on the spot – it’s not just tedious, it’s tiring.

    The chance to get out of your usual round of acquaintances and activities and hear and see and participate in interesting stuff actually gives you a physical boost. It might be temporary, but it keeps you going for a good few weeks. And the effect of that can keep you going for a few weeks more, or at least you can take a break feeling more satisfied with your efforts than you might otherwise have been.