#FtBCon Review and More Secular Things

We survived FtBCon2! There were tech disasters and no-show panelists and not enough food or sleep, but it was, like last time, a really fun weekend during which I learned a lot (and hope you did too). If you saw our final session, you know that we’re already thinking about the next con, so stay tuned for announcements about that within the next few weeks.

There were a few moments for me this weekend that were especially rewarding: our two-hour-long panel on polyamory on Friday night, hearing all the criticisms of the mainstream atheist movement (in panels like this one with young women of color, and this one with atheists who deal with chronic illness or disability), getting to play Cards Against Humanity online with people, and helping amplify the voices of people who otherwise might not reach an audience. Some other panels/talks I particularly enjoyed were godless parenting, sexual harassment law, Jewish atheism (that was one of mine!), and the secular support movement.

I’m also just really impressed, as usual, by the amount and quality of the work that was put into this. Stephanie, Jason, and Brianne worked their asses off, and all the non-FtB friends we had organizing panels, such as Courtney Caldwell, Benny, and all the folks from Secular Woman, put an incredible amount of work into this so much. Thank you to all of them, to everyone who helped out in the chatroom, to everyone who spread the word, and to everyone who watched.

Here, for your edification, is a playlist of ALL THE TALKS:

Last year, FtBCon helped spur the creation of the Secular Asian Community on Facebook. This time, it prompted a friend of mine to create a Facebook group called Secular Exchange NYC. It’s for New York-area atheists/agnostics/nontheists to exchange job postings, apartment listings, goods, services, and other needs, in recognition of the fact that as atheists, we don’t have ready-made communities like churches and synagogues that can provide us with these things.

If you’re a nontheist who lives in or spends a lot of time in the NYC area, you’re welcome to join the group. It’s still new and really small, but the bigger it gets, the more benefit there will be from it.

In other secular news, SkepTech is just two months away and they’re raising money! SkepTech is a technology-/skepticism-themed student conference. I went to the first one last year and had an amazing time. They had “safe zones” where people could get some quiet time and unwind, their speakers were diverse and awesome, Zach Weinersmith drew me a picture, and hijinks ensued. The IndieGoGo page also boasts that last year’s conference features “1,000,000,000+ salacious postures,” so you should go and see them for yourself. If you can, please help out their fundraising campaign and/or attend. Registration is already open (and free!), and the speaker lineup will be released later this week. From what I know of it already, it’s going to be really, really good.

Finally, here’s a cool documentary called Hug An Atheist that’s raising money to go to festivals. The documentary is important because it exposes people to the views and lives of actual atheists and does a lot to dispel the stigma that lots of people still feel towards atheists and atheism in general.

That’s it for now. I hope to write some more soon. I’m going to a polyamory conference in Philadelphia this weekend, so maybe that’ll provide some inspiration.

Don’t forget to join Secular Exchange NYC if it applies to you!

#FtBCon Preview!

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As previously mentioned, our second FtBCon is this weekend. You can find the full schedule on the Lanyrd page. Here’s a roundup of the stuff I’m doing, and a few more panels and talks you shouldn’t miss.

(All times are in Central)

Friday night at 9 PM, I’m leading a panel on polyamory with a bunch of great people: Heina Dadabhoy, Ania Bula, Alexander Gonzalez, Jesse Menard, Benny, and Sasha Pixlee. We’ll talk about what polyamory actually means and how we do it, and also touch on issues like the intersections between polyamory and our other identities.

Saturday at 6 PM, Chana Messinger and I are going to have a long-overdue conversation about Jewish atheism. We hope to correct misconceptions that many non-Jewish atheists have (for instance, yes, you can be both Jewish and an atheist) and discuss the place Jewish ritual and community has in our lives.

Saturday night at 11 PM, I’ll be leading a G+ Hangout-based game of Cards Against Humanity. Each game is limited to ten people total (although more can watch and chat with us via the chatbox), so hopefully I can wrangle some other FtBers in leading their own sessions. (Since this won’t be saved to YouTube, streaming will work a little differently for this. Look out for a link at the start time.)

Sunday at 11 AM, I’ll be talking about mental illness and society with Stephanie and Kate. Specifically, we’ll focus on the DSM, the manual used to diagnose mental illness, and the idea of defining what it means to be able to “function” in society.

Sunday at 5 PM, Ginny, Benny, and I will be talking about skepticism and sex education, sharing our experiences as sex educators, and pointing out the problems with how we approach sex ed in the United States.

Finally, here are some sessions from others that you should make sure to catch:

Saturday at 10 AM, a panel of secular leaders discusses secular support groups and networks. If you care about providing affirmative, evidence-based services to atheists struggling to cope with difficulties in their lives, you’ll want to see this.

Saturday at 11 AM, Russell Glasser, Jen Peeples, Elyse Anders, and Dale McGowan talk about raising atheist kids. I’ll be taking notes for…hopefully the very distant future.

Saturday at 2 PM, Ken White, attorney and blogger at Popehat, discusses sexual harassment law.

Saturday at 3 PM, Ania Bula leads a panel on chronic pain, disability, and the atheist movement. It was planned as a follow-up to last year’s fantastic panel on chronic pain, and I expect this one will be just as informative, if not even more so.

Saturday at 9 PM, Greta Christina will stream her Godless Perverts Story Hour live from San Francisco. Do not miss it.

Sunday at 9 AM, Ania Bula, Heina Dadabhoy, Vyckie Garrison, and Jamila Bey will discuss spiritual abuse. This important topic deserves more recognition than it gets, so make sure to wake up early for this one.

Finally, Sunday at 3 PM, Courtney Caldwell will lead a panel on the intersections between veganism and humanism. I’m really excited to hear what they have to say.

I really hope to see lots of you online this weekend! Don’t forget to follow our Twitter and Facebook for updates, including conference panels as they go live. The Pharyngula chatroom will be available for your questions and discussions.

Happy FtBCon!

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.

Occasional Link Roundup

Hello! Sorry for the intermittent posting. I would tell you all the things I’m doing that are causing the intermittent posting, but I wouldn’t want you to get too jealous. So instead, here’s some stuff I’m going to be doing soon that need some help:

First of all, on December 14 here in NYC, there’s going to be a big secular solstice celebration. The idea behind it is really cool: basically to help create a secular holiday tradition and strengthen the atheist community. There are obviously atheists who proclaim that they don’t need traditions or communities or any of that other pseudo-religious garbage (I’m being sarcastic), but for many of us, a sense of continuity and belonging is important for our emotional health. So, I think this is a cool idea.

Anyway, the Kickstarter has a few days left and has almost reached its goal, so if this interests you, please donate! And if you live in/near NYC, you should go. I’ll be there.

Second, Skepticon 6 is coming up: November 15-17 in Springfield, Missouri. They still need help raising money and there’s a matching offer on the table during the month of October, so consider doing that! I’m doing a workshop on Friday (probably at 4 PM) about good sexual communication at cons (a relevant topic these days if there ever was one). I’m also bringing my now-even-larger Cards Against Humanity set, so those of you who recall how awesome WiS2 was in this regard should be very excited.

Links:

1. A post over at the Fementalists’ blog discusses gaslighting and sexual assault (TW):

Your gaslighting may be to ‘calm me down’; to defeat the anger, because, to you, that’s helpful. I get that. But my anger is not what needs defeating. My resigned, depressed apathy does. The anger is valid. The anger is me knowing I did not and do not deserve it. Don’t you want to help me be that person? It might be disquieting for you as I grow into it, but the alternative is that I stay as the person who believes it was not rape. That is the person who tells herself, every day, when she feels like fighting back to anyone or anything at all: shh. Be quiet. Don’t make any noise. Don’t make any fuss.  People might think you are not okay with being raped.

2. Mia McKenzie is getting tired of the term “ally.”

“Ally” cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you–or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.

3. On Disrupting Dinner Parties (a great blog I’ve just discovered), Rebecca writes about an experience with someone who did consent very well.

I was completely blown away by this experience. It was the first time I had ever seen consent practices so explicitly modeled. I want to pass it on. I want to take all aspects of this interaction (except maybe the nudity) out of the counter-culture setting and bring them to the mainstream. Next time I want a kiss, I want to say something like, “I’d like to kiss you” or “Would you like me to kiss you?” to show others how deliciously sexy consent can be! Articles or documentaries or blogs about what rape culture looks like and what not to do, or even about consent culture and “how to practice consent”, are nothing compared to the power of modeling.

What if the movies and the TV shows showed that perfect dreamy first kiss with one party saying “I’d like to kiss you” then waiting for a verbal or physical response before their lips meet? How different would our culture be?

4. Positive psychology presumes that an individual’s circumstances don’t matter, only how one thinks about those circumstances. That makes it ideal for privileged people but not so much for everyone else:

In its pencil and paper and online self assessments, positive psychology assumes that it is personal characteristics that are being assessed and that they are modifiable with the advice and exercises that the workshops and the books provide. The emphasis on character and character-building is neo-Victorian. Positive psychology assumes that life is a level playing field except for the advantages or disadvantages that people have created for themselves. It is not circumstances that matter,  so much as what we think about them.

5. I hadn’t thought of this before, but all those posts you see after a person of color does something cool that collect tweets of people being super racist about it? Those might actually sort of perpetuate the problem:

The racism this story depicts is binary. It’s on or off, is you is or is you ain’t this racist, and that encourages the idea that racism isn’t something you personally do or are. It’s something other people do. You don’t do that, right? So you aren’t racist!

But any colored folk can tell you that’s not how racism works. Everybody is a little racist. There are hundreds of learned reactions to different groups of people to unlearn, not to mention the areas of society where racist sentiment is implicit instead of explicit, like zoning laws or the prison industrial complex or the war on drugs. It’s in all of us. We’re gonna have to live with that racism until we fix it and our selves, and viewing racism as a binary personality choice doesn’t allow for that.

6. At Feminspire, Madison explains why straight people need to stop telling queer people to be “grateful” for Macklemore (or for allies in general):

This is exactly why we have an issue with the pedestal Macklemore has been given. The very same people who applaud him for risking nothing with a song about marriage equality are telling queer people shut up and take what they can get. When we speak about the inequality evidenced by the silencing of our concerns while straight, cisgender people can talk about the same things and be called heroes for it; we get called morons and told not to discriminate.

7. Lucia writes about a really gross M&Ms ad that uses the suggestion of sexual assault as its theme (TW):

The entire premise of this advertisement is a classic reflection of real-life scenarios of sexual violence, and it’s being used, just like so many other companies, to try and sell products. An anthropomorphized M&M is “warned” about the predatory nature of a woman who “just cannot help herself,” then sets up her M&M friend to be taken away from the party by this predatory woman, who then leads that M&M away to her car, locks the doors, and attacks him. The last frame of the advert is the a shot of the parked car, with the poor little red M&M screaming.

8. Finally, the letter you have wanted to send to everyone you argue with online:

It’s with very real regret that we must inform you that your petition to play devil’s advocate has been denied. Thank you for your interest in the devil’s advocate position; we realize that this is disappointing and would like to assure you that your candidacy was considered very carefully. As you know, we receive an overwhelming number of requests to play devil’s advocate every day, and while we would like to accommodate them all, we simply don’t have the resources to do so.

9. Mitchell expertly skewers everyone whining about young people these days:

This is the generation that is scandalized by “hookup culture” as though today’s students are actually hooking up any more than they did when they were students (we aren’t, but fact-checking has never been your strong suit, guys, so we’ll try not to take your investigative inadequacies personally). This is the generation that talks about our generation’s lack of empathy and personal responsibility with straight faces while the companies they run bold-facedly lie about budgets for their employees, and dodge their responsibility to provide benefits.

[...]This generation deigns, so kindly, to lecture their children on taking responsibility.

10. On Storify, @ProFeministBro discusses the importance of teaching young men about consent, and Stephanie painstakingly documents my illustrative argument with a Facebook employee from this weekend.

11. Amanda has some tips for men who feel compelled to harass and abuse feminists online.

Read books written by female authors. Try to do it in a non-defensive pose. Instead of flipping through the pages, trying to find what’s wrong with it and why she’s clearly an overrated writer whose reputation was created by desperate women trying to prove something, read the book like you would a man’s book. If it helps, pretend the author’s a man until you’ve calmed down and started to enjoy the book. Start with Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, and work up to your Alice Munros and Margaret Atwoods.

12. s.e. smith points out something contradictory in societal attitudes toward mental illness and medication:

At the same time that society hates mental illness, though, it’s surprisingly vocal when it comes to the use of psychiatric medications and therapy to manage mental illness. Taking pills makes you ‘weak’ and not able to ‘just handle it,’ while therapy is useless and suspect, something that people are only brainwashed into thinking is useful. People who pay to talk to someone for an hour (or more) a week are clearly, well, you know. Crazy, and the entire mental health profession is obviously raking it in by deceiving all these people with their silly notions of ‘treatment’ and ‘management.’

The disdainful attitude when it comes to managing mental illness is at utter odds with social attitudes about mental illness. If crazy people are so awful, if we’re told that it’s ‘okay to be crazy so long as you act sane in public,’ how are we supposed to be less crazy if we can’t actually get any treatment? This paradoxical attitude is widely in force in society and people don’t seem to realise how absurd it is; if they think that, for example, schizophrenia is a scary and dangerous disease that turns people into monsters, uh, wouldn’t they want people with schizophrenia to be able to access whichever treatments help them manage their mental health condition most effectively?

13. FInally, the Belle Jar has an amazing post on the lies depression tells you. All of these resounded with me, but especially this one:

Everything is your fault.

If you plan a picnic and it rains, it’s your fault. You should have been more thorough when you checked the weather. You should have learned to be an amateur meteorologist so that you could better read the clouds. You should have packed a canopy. If you go out for dinner, for your once-in-a-blue-moon, hire-a-babysitter-and-wear-a-nice-dress date and the food or service or conversation is anything less than exceptional, it’s your fault. You should have read more restaurant reviews, should have asked friends for more recommendations, should have prepared cue cards with talking points. If someone is unkind to you, it’s your fault. You should have smiled more, been more gracious, tried harder to be whatever it was that they needed in that moment.

Everything is your fault.

What good stuff have you read/written this week?

#FtBCon Wrap-up and Thank Yous

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Hopefully you caught at least part of our first-ever FtBCon this weekend; if not, here’s a convenient playlist of all of the things. I had a blast with it despite being chained to my computer for two and a half days; I met a bunch of people, learned a lot, and got to talk about some important stuff. Not that different from a meatspace conference, actually!

The best part were all the comments I saw from people who said that they never have the option to go to meatspace cons. Many said this was their first atheist/skeptical conference. Many said that physical/mental disabilities, money, work, children, and so on kept them from traveling to cons.

Of course, FtBCon isn’t anywhere near a perfect simulation of a meatspace conference. It can’t be. Nothing can replace that feeling of walking into a huge room full of likeminded people milling about, vendors selling books and jewelry and clothing, friends you rarely get to see in person. Nothing beats taking photos with your heroes and having people recognize you from the Internet. We have to keep doing our best to make conferences accessible in every possible way.

But FtBCon came damn close. The chat room was always full of great conversation, just like the hotel lobby after the day’s talks have wrapped up. Many of the panels would keep going after they went off air, with the panelists telling each other everything they didn’t get to say during the panel and then dissolving into conversation about family or books or life. People found new bloggers and speakers to follow, people made friends, people made plans for the future.

For instance, the folks from the amazing chronic pain panel mentioned wanting to create some sort of group for skeptics with chronic pain, and my mental illness panelists and I want to do a series of private and public hangouts about mental health from a skeptical perspective. And throughout the conference, many of us were already busy thinking up ideas for the next one (in fact, there’s a lively conversation going on in the FtB backchannel about that already).

Some of the highlights for me, aside from my own panels, were listening to Shelley Segal perform a beautiful song called “My Morality,” listening to Kate (check out her brand-new FtB blog!) give a great solo talk about the DSM, giving the folks from the Pathfinders Project the chance to promote their amazing work, hearing Ashley and Kelley talk about representation in some of my favorite YA novels, and, of course, drinking with everyone at the end and dissolving into laughter every 10 seconds.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been a part of this community for about a year. I never could’ve guessed, a year ago, that this summer I’d be helping organize such an awesome event–and one with so much potential to be even better next time.

Here are the panels I organized, by the way. On Friday night we did Sex & Skepticism, which I’ve been hearing is many attendees’ favorite panel:

The last panel of the night was Supporting Freethinkers with Mental Illness:

And on Sunday afternoon, we did another one on mental illness: “What’s the Harm? Religion, Pseudoscience, and Mental Health”:

In conclusion, I had a fucking fantastic time. I want to thank the rest of the organizers–Jason, Ian, Stephanie, Brianne, Russell, Ed, and especially PZ, who basically put this whole thing together before we got off our asses to help. (We promise to do better next time, PZ.) I also want to thank everyone who submitted proposals for panels, including the ones we weren’t able to accommodate (sorry about that! There were only a few of us and very many of you). And I especially want to thank my panel participants–Kate, Brendan, Drama, Olivia, Ed, Greta, Benny, Sophie, Franklin, Ginny, Nicole, Courtney, Ania, Niki, and Allegra. It’s gotta take guts to go on streaming video in front of hundreds of people to talk about sex and mental illness, but you all did it and it was great.

And, of course, thanks to everyone who was so excited–everyone who shared the event on Facebook, everyone who kept the chatroom hopping with discussions, everyone who tweeted, everyone who told us that this is important and necessary.

If you attended, please fill out this survey to tell us how we did. The next FtBCon will be much better, and it may be sooner than you think…

What I’m Doing This Weekend! #ftbcon

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FtBCon is almost upon us! Here’s a handy guide to everything I’m doing this weekend, aside from ALL OF THE SOCIAL MEDIA. All times are CDT (UTC – 5). The rest of the schedule, with links to where all the sessions will be, can be found here.

I’m hosting three panels for others (not speaking, just setting up and relaying audience questions):

Promoting Social Justice in Small Atheist Groups: Friday 10pm to 10:50pm with Paul Wright, Daniel Midgley, Madge Carew-Hopkins (they’re all from Australia!)

A lot has been said about promoting social justice in large groups of atheists, like forums, blogs and conventions. It’s not always easy to keep out the trolls and harassers and to say what needs to be said, but it can be done. But what do you do in a small university atheist club, or a local skeptic meetup group? Paul Wright, Madge Carew-Hopkins and Daniel Midgley talk about atheist groups in Perth, Australia and how the arguments that rage in the wider community have parallels in local atheist groups.

Reproductive Rights: Saturday 2pm to 3pm (with Brianne Bilyeu, Greg Laden, Bree Pearsall, Fausta Luchini, Aoife O’Riordan, Robin Marty and Nicole Harris)

A panel of reproductive rights activists come together to discuss access to abortion in current events , clinic escorting and some common religious and non-religious arguments against abortion. Our panel consists of clinic escorts – including one panelist who volunteered before FACE laws went into effect (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances), health care professionals, an author and several bloggers who write about reproductive rights. Our panelists hail from Minnesota, Kentucky, Virginia and Ireland.

Meet the Pathfinders: Sunday 11am to 12pm (with Ben Blanchard, Conor Robinson, and Wendy Webber)

Three of the volunteers of the Pathfinders Project, a yearlong international service and research trip sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief, will be discussing the project, themselves, why they are involved, and why humanist service is so important.

I’m also moderating three more:

Sex & Skepticism: Friday 6pm to 8pm (with Greta Christina, Ginny Brown, Franklin Veaux, Benny, and Sophie Hirschfeld)

Sexuality is an area of human experience where pseudoscience and woo frequently prevail. How can skepticism and atheism enhance sex? What are the harms of allowing quackery and unexamined biases into the bedroom? Our panelists have a wide range of experiences with sexuality and skepticism, and their views on these questions will be diverse and thought-provoking.

Supporting Freethinkers with Mental Illness: Friday 11pm to 12am (with Kate Donovan, Brendan Murphy, Olivia James, and Drama)

“Have you tried yoga?” “You just need to pray harder.” “You should try this herbal supplement.” People with mental illnesses get advice like this all the time. Although it’s not particularly helpful to anyone, with skeptics and atheists it’s especially misguided. What should we say to freethinkers dealing with mental illness? How do we support them in an evidence-based way? How can we use skepticism and critical thinking to reduce the stigma of mental illness? How can we improve access to treatment that actually works?

What’s the Harm? Religion, Pseudoscience, and Mental Health: Sunday 1pm to 2pm (with Ania Bula, Nicole Harris, Niki M., Allegra Selzer, Courtney Caldwell, and Rachel Maccabee)

Religious and pseudoscientific communities often claim to promote mental health, whether through treatment or social support. Our panelists will discuss their experiences with mental illness and how religion and pseudoscience have influenced them. They will talk about the religious and pseudoscientific treatments they have gone through and how friends and family from those communities have responded to their mental illness.

And I’m speaking in this one, moderated by Crommunist:

God is Love? Relationships in a Godless World: Saturday 4pm to 6pm (with Ania Bula, James Croft, Jamila Bey, Beth Presswood, and Anti-Intellect)

Despite the popular assertion, one does not need to believe in a god to have love in their lives; however, disbelief surely shapes the kinds of loving relationships atheists can have. What effect does lack of a god belief have on things like sexual desire, shame, and the types of relationships we feel comfortable with? A panel of people with different experiences and perspectives discusses some of the issues and takes your questions!

I hope to see lots of you online this weekend! Don’t forget that you can talk to other attendees in the Pharyngula chat room.

#FtBCon Schedule Released!

Hopefully you’ve already heard all about our network’s online conference this weekend. If not, here’s the blurb:

FtBCon is a free, online conference organized by the Freethought Blogs network. It will take place on July 19-21, 2013 and will focus on social justice, technology, and the future of the freethought movement. Without travel, registration, or hotel costs, FtBCon will be accessible to freethinkers around the world. Conference sessions will be held through Google+ hangouts, and attendees will have the opportunity to interact with each other in chat rooms and to submit questions to moderators.

We’ve released our schedule for the weekend, with the caveat that there will be plenty more added to it. To stay up-to-date, track the Lanyrd page. But here’s what we have so far, to get you excited!

[Read more...]

[blogathon] Top Ten Reasons I Can’t Wait for Women in Secularism 2

The WiS2 conference logo.

This is the second post in my SSA blogathon! Don’t forget to donate! This post comes from a reader’s request.

In less than two weeks, I’ll be off to Washington, DC for the second Women in Secularism conference, to which I get to go primarily thanks to the generosity of an FtB reader who gave out a bunch of grants. Yay!

Check out WiS2’s awesome schedule here.

Here’s why I’m really excited:

10. Cards Against Humanity. It’s not a secular con without it. It’s always the first thing to go into my duffel bag.

9. Washington, DC. I rarely have occasion to travel there, but it’s a beautiful city. Last time I was there it was December, which was slightly unpleasant, but this time it won’t be. Maybe I’ll have a bit of time to just walk around and explore, too.

8. Using my new business cards! I didn’t really give them out at Skeptech because I basically knew everyone there. But I’ll probably find a use for them at WiS2. Check them out, I designed them myself!

7. Seeing Susan Jacoby speak. I laughed out loud numerous times while reading her book The Age of American Unreason recently, and that rarely happens while reading nonfiction. I disagreed with her on some things, primarily relating to technology, but for the most part reading the book made me want to shout “fuck yes” periodically. She’ll be speaking about the history of women in secularism and I’m sure it’ll be similarly awesome.

6. Getting out of Evanston for three days. Every time I do this, I feel refreshed and destressed. There are great things about living at a university campus, and there are not great things about it. I look forward to sleeping in a comfortable bed and without drunk students yelling beneath my window (and now that I’ve said that won’t happen, just watch it happen anyway :P).

5. Friends!  I’ll get to meet a bunch of lovely people with whom I correspond online but have never actually seen in person–Tetyana of Science of Eating Disorders, Ania and Alexander of Scribbles and Rants, and Melody of CFI-DC (who just might be involved in this conference somehow…). I’ll also get to see people I’ve already met: Kate and Andrew, obviously, Sarah Moglia, and tons of other people I’m probably forgetting.

4. Getting to see Stephanie, Greta, Rebecca, and Amanda speak–again. While seeing and meeting new speakers is always exciting, seeing the ones that I already know will be awesome is arguably even better.

3. Blogging! Lots of blogging! I’ll be doing it. I might even liveblog if I can get good enough wifi access. Taking notes/writing about talks is not only helpful for those who end up reading it; it also helps me better remember what I’ve learned, which is often a problem for me since I’m not an auditory learner at all. So sharpening my liveblogging skills will be great.

2. I know I already mentioned Amanda Marcotte, but her talk seems so cool that it warrants its own list item. It’s called “How Feminism Makes Better Skeptics: The Role Rationality Plays in Ending Sexism.” I think this is extremely important because there are so many people who still believe that feminism and skepticism are incompatible. There are also many feminists who take a very anti-skeptical stance to both feminism and other issues, which is why you sometimes see extreme science denialism and adherence to pseudo-religious dogma in the feminist movement. So I’m very curious to see what Amanda has to say about feminism and rationality.

1. Spending a weekend with a bunch of fantastic secular activists. Although I always enjoy the actual talks and panels at conferences, the best part by far is the feeling of being around so many people with whom I can fit in. There’s no other feeling quite like that.

If you’re going to WiS2, let me know and come say hi! :D

~~~

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SkepTech Impressions

This weekend I was at SkepTech, from which I’m just now recovering (very little sleep or good nutrition happened this weekend). I had a fantastic time.

As a disclaimer, most of the SkepTech organizers are good friends of mine, so perhaps I’m biased to some extent in seeing the conference positively. In any case, I loved it. I thought it was extremely well-organized for a free, student-run conference in its first year. There was a good mix of established and indie speakers. The venue was well-chosen. The atmosphere was vibrant, curious, and a little geeky. In that sense it reminded me a lot of Skepticon, of which I was also a huge fan.

A snazzy homosexual Jew goat.

Best slide of the con, courtesy of Jesse Galef.

On a personal note, seeing my friends was absolutely amazing. The fact that most of the people I love don’t live anywhere near me is kind of always a thorn in my side, but I’m incredibly lucky that every once in a while I get to spend a whole weekend learning and having fun with them. Hanging out with so many fantastic writers–Jason, PZ, Greta, Stephanie, JT, Brianne, and others–was also really great. The quality of the conversations and debates I had this weekend made coming home a sort of culture shock.

I didn’t meet as many people as I would’ve hoped, but part of that was that I already knew so many of the people there, and it’s kind of a tough sell to make yourself go and introduce yourself to new people when there are so many fucking awesome people you already know.

Anyway, a few specific things I liked:

  • The Twitter wall. The organizers had a laptop with Tweetdeck hooked up to a smaller screen off to the side of the main screen, which displayed both the official SkepTech account feed and the hashtag feed. Although some might argue (legitimately) that this is distracting, I found it a huge help in several ways. It boosted a feeling of community; instead of looking at their phones people could look at the screen. It was also interesting to watch it while I was speaking on my panels because I got to see what the audience was reacting to the most out of what I was saying. Furthermore, I often have difficulty following lectures (let’s just say I’m not an auditory learner), and when I spaced out for a few seconds, I could just check the Twitter wall and catch up on what I missed. The organizers were also really adept at using this well; when a few trolls started spamming the hashtag to say crap about SkepTech (ironically, this happened right during the talk on how to use social media effectively), the organizers quickly hid the spammers on their account so that we wouldn’t see them in the feed. (To clarify, though, you can’t actually ban/block someone from using a hashtag. You can only hide them from your own account, so if you’re using that account to display a Twitter feed for an audience, the audience won’t see them either.)
  • The hangout zones. You could tell there were a few introverts involved in the planning of this conference because outside of the auditorium and behind the tabling area, there was a huge space full of comfy chairs and couches where you could go to get away from people for a while, labeled “Safe Space Hangout Zone.” I saw plenty of people taking advantage of it throughout the conference. (Personally, my introversion kind of turns off when I’m at a con, but I still used it a few times when I needed to deal with some personal stuff.)
  • SkepTechs in the Pub. After Saturday’s talks, we all went out to a nearby pub to hang out, which was planned by the organizers beforehand. Although there was a little bit of a snafu with people under 21 nearly getting kicked out (not good for a student conference), they ended up being allowed to stay. We had plenty of space to sit and people mingled and there was an amazing Les Mis sing-off between JT and my friend Jesse. Good times were had by (hopefully) all.
  • The harassment policy. Yup, there was a pretty detailed harassment policy. As a result I felt like my comfort and safety were being taken seriously by the organizers and that I would have someone to go to if things went wrong. But they didn’t. In fact, I’ll just state for the record that the harassment policy did absolutely nothing to prevent all kinds of after-hours fun that occurred, and I’ll leave it at that. :)

And a few specific things that could be improved:

  • Dinner/lunch breaks. They were only an hour long each, which meant that you could either go to a chain restaurant, eat really quickly, or miss the talks immediately after the breaks. I opted for the latter, which I regret, but eating properly is really important to me. Although longer breaks would mean fewer talks, I think that would be a worthwhile trade-off in the future. That way nobody needs to choose between missing a great talk and eating poorly (or not at all).
  • Starting/ending on time and leaving room for questions. Although the conference generally ran by the schedule, there was a talk or two that actually started a full ten minutes early, and a few that started and/or finished late. There also didn’t seem to be any consistency in terms of leaving room for questions. Some speakers got tons of time to answer questions from the audience, and some didn’t get any. One of my panels took a single question from the audience and the other took none. This is unfortunate because getting to ask questions helps audience members be more engaged (not to mention learn more), so in the future I’d suggest asking speakers to plan on leaving a certain amount of time for questions.
  • Moar people! For a first-year conference, the attendance was great. I don’t know exactly how many people were there because I am not one of the organizers and I cannot count. But there were quite a few. That said, there was a lot more space that could’ve been filled, and I also think that the conference could’ve been promoted a bit better. I’m sure that next year will bring a larger audience regardless.
  • Diversity. Yeah, yeah, I know. We’re always harping about diversity. Of the 14 speakers (not including the people who were only panelists), only three were women and one was a person of color. (To be fair, there was supposed to be one more woman speaker, but she ended up being unable to attend.) As I said, I think the organizers did a fantastic job of getting some really great speakers, and it’s only their first year. But going forward, I hope there will be more attention paid to promoting inclusivity, and that the speakers of color that they do bring will get to speak about something other than race. Otherwise it’s a little like, “Yo, come tell us how to fix our shit.”
  • The Minnesota weather. Because fuck that.
A lovely self-portrait of Zach Weinersmith.

Zach Weinersmith of SMBC Comics drew me this pretty picture!

My favorite talks:

  • Stephanie was awesome in her talk on psychometrics. It really got me thinking about the gendered ways in which we define and diagnose mental disorders. Blog post TBA.
  • Brendan Murphy talked about the neuropsychology of quitting and included a few tidbits on how to support people who are considering quitting a goal or project (here’s a hint: don’t implore them to “just keep trying”!).
  • JT talked about “hacktivism” and gave examples of things he’s done as an activist, including trolling Brother Jed. I think the best advice JT gave is to have fun with your activism–it encourages people to join and breaks down stereotypes about atheists (and, really, any other kind of activists).
  • My two panels–one on sex in cyberspace and one on meatspace vs. online activism–were super fun.
  • Ben Blanchard’s talk on using social media effectively was extremely useful. You might get a bit of a laugh out of it. :)

Anyway, tl;dr, conference was super fun and well-organized, and I can’t wait to come back next year. If you live in Minnesota or nearby, you should too!

Come to Skeptech on April 5-7!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m going to a new student conference in at the University of Minnesota this April. It’s called Skeptech and it’s being organized by Campus Atheists, Humanists, and Skeptics (CASH) at the U of M and the Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University.

The lineup of speakers is fantastic and includes PZ Myers, Greta Christina, JT Eberhard, Stephanie Zvan, Jen McCreight, Hemant Mehta, and Zach Weinersmith, the author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (among many other really cool people).

There will also be a bunch of panels, two of which I’ll be speaking on! The first one is called “Sex in Cyberspace: Porn, OkCupid and the Internet“:

Dating online can be confusing. Grindr, okcupid, craigslist, and other media apps are all different ways technology has merged with sex and dating culture. How has this changed the way we hook up, the way we present ourselves, and how we relate to other potential partners? And what about porn—how can we be ethical consumers? And is online consent any different that “real life” consent?

The second is called “Real World vs. Cyberspace Activism“:

The panel will focus on a problem every activist has—how do we delegate time? Is it better to blog and be active online, or to spend more time volunteering in-person? How are the two approaches different or similar? Which is ultimately more effective? The point of this panel is to recognize the pros/cons of cyberspace and meatspace activism, and to figure out how we balance the two (if balancing them is even the correct response to begin with).

The organizers definitely managed to give me two subjects I have a lot of Feelings and Opinions about. I’m one of those people who’s endlessly frustrated by the way flirting and dating work online, and yet I somehow managed to meet my partner over Facebook (it’s a funny story). I think that the internet can be very empowering, particularly for people whose sexualities have traditionally been stigmatized and marginalized, but we also bring some of the worst parts of “the real world” with us when we go online.

As for the second panel, I find that I’m often having to defend the idea of online activism (it’s not all “slacktivism,” I promise!), but some of the most important activisty things I’ve done have happened mostly offline. I think that the internet can facilitate real-world action in ways that we take for granted sometimes, and I also think that it provides a space for activism for those who face serious social consequences for doing it out in the “real world.”

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say for now lest I give away everything I’m going to talk about at the panel, but if you have any thoughts on either of these subjects, go ahead and share them in the comments.

And, most importantly, consider coming to Skeptech if you can! Registration is free. :)