Housekeeping & Open Thread

Hello! I’ve been too busy to do very much writing that isn’t for pay (that is, the Daily Dot). I haven’t even had a chance to do any proper link roundups, so I haven’t shared these two things with you:

1. I had the opportunity to be a guest on a lovely podcast called Sex For Smart People. In this episode, we discussed catcalling, female orgasms, Jian Ghomeshi, Gamergate, that Northwestern University professor who was accused of sexual assault and responded by suing the accuser, and affirmative consent laws. And more. Check it out here.

2. Skepticon is tomorrow! I’m repeating my workshop from last year, Getting It On at the Con: How to Get Lucky Consensually. It’ll be at 3 PM tomorrow in the delightfully named Maui Ballroom. Same deal as last time. In addition, I am taking my DSLR to Skepticon, so if you are there and want nice shots of your outfits, find me and let me know! I will not think you are vain. I love photographing people.

Immediately following Skepticon, I’ll be spending a lovely week at home in Ohio, where I will cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner for many people. Hopefully some actual writing will get done during that time, too.

Since I’ve been so absent lately, let’s do an open thread! What have you been reading or writing lately? What’s going on in your life? How are you coping with these bullshit temperatures? Why is your city the absolute best city in the world? (You’ve already heard my answer to that question, so I’m opening it up to you.) How do you feel about [current event I have not written about]? Here is your chance to talk about all the stuff you can’t normally talk about in my threads because it would be off-topic!

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?

Skepticon and the Need for an Atheist Community

(Or, In Which I Rant Lovingly About Skepticon)

I haven’t written for a few days because I was off at Skepticon, which is the largest student-run atheist/skeptical conference in the U.S. It was amazing.

Spending a weekend with a combination of some of my best friends, a few of my greatest Internet Heroes, and a ton of cool people I didn’t know yet got me thinking about the concept of atheist communities–specifically, why we need them.

The idea of an atheist “movement” or atheist “communities” catches a lot of flak for various reasons. Some people are opposed to the idea that atheism should mean anything other than sitting on your butt at home on Sunday morning and not believing in any gods. That’s fine. For many of us, though, atheism informs and inspires what we do with the rest of our lives, and it’s unfair to deny the validity of that.

Others note the toxicity that certain parts of the atheist “movement” have–whether it’s Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, or outright bullying and harassment. Yes, these things happen in our community. But they’re not exclusive to our community. (Of course, I likewise disagree with the apologists who insist that because they’re not exclusive to our community, we should stop making a fuss about them. No, wrong. We should never stop making a fuss about them, because that’s exactly how we get rid of them.)

In other words, claiming that an atheist community is useless or counterproductive because of the nasty elements that it (still) contains misses the point. All communities contain nasty elements. The solution isn’t to disband the communities, but to kick those nasty elements out.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who chooses not to participate in our community because of that, of course. It’s up to you what you’re able and willing to deal with. Personally, I’ve found that the benefits of belonging to this community far outweigh the drawbacks, but that’s just me. And besides, for many years, I was one of those people who called myself “agnostic” (not realizing, of course, that almost all atheists are also agnostics) and shied away from atheist clubs and events. I had my reasons. Now I don’t.

Besides that, people who claim that there’s no point in having an atheist community don’t realize what it’s like to be newly deconverted or living in an area where atheism is heavily stigmatized. I met people at Skepticon who literally can’t be themselves anywhere but there (or on the internet, with pseudonyms). Doesn’t that matter?

Atheist communities can be both productive and fun, when done right. So what was it that was so special about Skepticon?

It was that I walked in and felt like I had come home.

Suddenly I was surrounded by people who really like the fact that I’m always ranting about psychology or social justice or whatever. I had so many interesting discussions all throughout the weekend, in many cases disagreeing with people. Tons of people wore Surly-Ramics (these amazing pieces of ceramic jewelry that an artist named Surly Amy makes to promote science and skepticism), and we compared ours.

Me, at home at last with my ridiculously political laptop. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

For this entire weekend, I didn’t have to apologize for caring. I didn’t have to say, “Sorry I’m being all serious, but…” I didn’t have to say, “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being religious, it’s just that…” I felt like I was among hundreds of like-minded folks.

Some will say that this makes Skepticon like a “circlejerk” of sorts and that wanting to associate with people who are like you is wrong. I disagree. You don’t typically learn from circlejerks, and I learned a lot. And while it’s a bit immature to always avoid people you disagree with, there’s nothing wrong with escaping to your own “tribe” for a weekend. Constantly having to argue and defend your opinions can be exhausting. For me, Skepticon was like a vacation. An educational one.

Besides, there was plenty of disagreement at Skepticon. It just wasn’t about 1) the nonexistence of god, 2) the value of skepticism, or 3) the fucking awesomeness of science.

There were protesters outside the expo center. They were pretty nice as protesters go. One of them had a sign–I wish I remembered what it said verbatim–and it said something like, “Why such a big fuss over nothing?”

This is one of the biggest myths I hear about atheism, and it’s a myth stemming from the belief that god is all there is to live for. If there’s no god, there must be “nothing.” Nothing worth celebrating, nothing worth getting together for, nothing worth having conferences about, nothing worth getting up at 5 AM to drive 9 hours for. Nothing worth fighting for, nothing worth blogging about, nothing worth dying for. Nothing worth letting your kids stay up past their bedtime so you can teach them about it as they look on in wonder.

The thing is, Skepticon wasn’t just about atheism. Some of the talks were entirely about science and/or skepticism, like the workshop my friend Ben gave about pseudoscience, the talk PZ Myers gave about evolution (which I understood very little of; sorry PZ, you still rock), the talk about the Higgs boson, Rebecca Watson’s amazing talk on how evolutionary psychology is misused to promote sexist bullshit (which had us all squirming in our seats with laughter while simultaneously shaking our heads), and Jennifer Oulette’s talk about positive effects of hallucinogenic drugs and how our outdated national drug policy prevents further research on them.

Why does this matter? It’s not that theists can’t be good scientists or that they can’t promote skepticism and scientific literacy. It’s more that science takes on such an important status in the atheist community that celebrating it is par for the course. Walk into an atheist convention and you’ll see geeky t-shirts and hear references to xkcd and encounter people with PhDs in all sorts of cool scientific fields. My atheist friends and I once hung out over video chat and watched a live stream of Curiosity landing on Mars. When atheists talk about stuff, we’re rarely talking about “nothing” (or, rather, god’s nonexistence). We often talk about science, and science is absolutely worth celebrating.

Skepticon attendees counter-protesting. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

As for the more explicitly atheism-themed talks, theists might be surprised to know that nobody stood there repeating evidence for god’s nonexistence over and over. Greta Christina talked about how her atheism helped her cope with her father’s death and with cancer. She also mentioned how the atheist community donated so much money in the wake of her diagnosis that she was able to stop worrying about how to afford taking time off from speaking and traveling to recover. Hemant Mehta talked about supporting teenage atheists who are discriminated against in high schools. Darrell Ray discussed how religious ideas about sexuality have permeated even secular discourse, and how we can let go of them and stop feeling shame about our bodies and sex lives.

Oh, and JT Eberhard addressed common Christian arguments against atheism, finishing his talk with “But how do you know love exists?” JT knows love exists because we see evidence for it in how we act with one another, and in how he feels about his girlfriend. And then he proposed to her in front of the whole audience.

These are some of the things we talk about when we get together.

Skepticon is free, and its organizers are committed to keeping it that way. The money for it comes from donations and sponsorships. Just a few days before this year’s Skepticon, the organizers found out that due to an unexpectedly expensive contract, the fundraising had fallen very short. They posted a message asking the community for help.

And we gave them $6,000 in two days.

There is so much work ahead of us in improving our community–making it more accessible, more diverse, more friendly to women, more safe. But even as it is now, it amazes me, and I’m so happy to be here.

The new Surly I got this weekend to remind me to keep doing what’s important.