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On Sexual Harassment Policies

Ron Lindsay of CFI (a lawyer and legal scholar) has composed a brief, solid primer on why sexual harassment policies are necessary and how they actually work, in the context of CFI’s new policy adopted for conferences and events. See CFI’s New Policy on Hostile Conduct. It is illuminating because of his legal expertise and the fact that he dispels many of the false assumptions about what sexual harassment policies do. He also discusses the merits of different policy elements and why CFI accepts some and rejects others, a good example of what I have been talking about: see On Sexual Harassment on that point, and the whole backstory on why I’m talking about this and what I think about it. Here I want to collect my thoughts on how venues could and should improve any policies they now have or will adopt in future. If you agree, and see a policy that could be improved, feel free to refer the organization in question here.

Defining and Delimiting Harassment

It is well worth reading the policy CFI adopted, and its smart use of definitions, which I highly recommend other venues adopt. Most particularly:

In general, prohibited conduct includes any abusive conduct that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with another person’s ability to enjoy and participate in the conference, including social events related to the conference.

Well stated. And they adopt the ideal clarification all atheist and skeptical events should incorporate into their policies:

Critical examination of beliefs, including critical commentary on another person’s views, does not, by itself, constitute hostile conduct or harassment.

I must pause to dispel another myth going around, which is that restaurants and pubs don’t have harassment policies. Sorry, but they typically do. It would be naive about business liability insurance to think otherwise. The best businesses even go beyond what their carriers require: see Bars Adopt ‘Zero Tolerance’ for Sexual Harassment (ironic considering this is what some people have said smart businesses would never do–yet the most successful ones have done exactly that: openly promote their sexual harassment policies specifically to increase female clientele). Crommunist also wrote about this subject as an informed insider, having worked as a bouncer at several bars. Cristina Rad has also come out with her Case 2 on sexual harassment, including her stories about working in bar environments, and her observations and conclusions about it are very well worth reading.

Establishing Consent

Back to the topic of my present concern, Todd Stiefel (of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation) has produced an excellent example of how to debate the specifics of policy and recommend improvements (see: On Harassment and Policies). He makes three specific recommendations that I happen to agree with (more or less). Greta Christina makes a general observation of why this is exactly how people in the atheist movement should behave when debating these issues, and I concur with her general observations (see: Some Thoughts on Critiquing Codes of Conduct). This is in fact the difference between maturity and immaturity. This is what my point 4 looks like in action.

Stiefel’s first concern was that offensive speech should not itself be defined as harassment, and he even recommends CFI’s policy (as I do) for the solution to that concern. His second concern was that “unwelcome sexual attention” was too vague. Void for Vagueness is a real legal concern, which can nullify an actual law (see this legal brief at Justia.com), and since codes of conduct are in effect bylaws they can suffer the same problem. This is of particular concern to a business or organization when a policy must be appealed to in a liability case. You can lose all the protection you thought a policy was going to provide you. Lindsay, however, rejected Stiefel’s concerns, and concludes that the phrase “unwelcome sexual attention” is not legally vague (it meets tests of objective fact: when an advance is openly declared unwanted, there is no ambiguity, and likewise when an advance exceeds all reasonable standards of common decency).

In his analysis, Lindsay essentially says that the phrase “unwelcome sexual attention” already encompasses what Stiefel would want spelled out (here quoting Stiefel’s recommended language):

Unwanted sexual attention will be considered harassment when: a) it continues after being rejected; or, b) it includes threats, coercion or deliberate intimidation; or, c) it is directed towards a subordinate in a hierarchical organization (such as a manager towards an employee below them in an organization.); or, d) it is done by someone who knows or should reasonably know that the attention will be unwelcome.

Such excess verbiage is unnecessary because objective measures of violation have to be on record anyway for a policy to be actionable (and that means an advance has to have been turned down before repeated advances count as unwelcome, or an advance has to be so crude and impolite that a “reasonable person,” i.e. a jury of one’s peers, would deem it unwelcome, whether in a court of law or a policy enforcement committee). As Lindsay explains, defining sexual harassment as (in part) “unwelcome sexual attention” does not “prohibit flirting or a polite expression of interest in another person.” For instance, he says, “the question, ‘Would you be interested in having a drink later?’ would not be considered harassment,” whereas something far more crude, vulgar, and offensive would be, without any prior rejection required.

I agree with Lindsay on the technical facts here, but the problem is communicating to the public (the actual and would-be attendees of an organizational event) what is meant, and I do believe Stiefel is right that this needs to be spelled out more clearly for that purpose. This does not, however, require the lengthy and technical spelling-out that Stiefel recommends. It is sufficient to state something like, “all sexual attention that a recipient has stated is unwelcome, or that exceeds common standards of decency, is unwelcome.”

Stiefel’s third concern is with bans on “any touching without explicit permission,” which runs afoul of standard cultural norms like shaking hands and even hugging, where nonverbal assent (or refusal) is normally what is expected and supplied (and of course, previous relationships can establish implicit permission, running afoul of the notion of requiring explicit permission). He is correct that a policy should not require verbal permission for any and all forms of touching.

For example, the first draft of the American Atheists Harassment Policy stated “No touching other people without asking” (it even specified that this applies to hugging; it has not yet been changed, but as their policy is a work in progress, this provision may be revised in future). Likewise the use of the word “explicit” can be perceived as mandating verbal permission. Such wording should not be used. The word “express” or “expressed” might be better (since that would more clearly include nonverbal expression). Or just prohibit “unwelcome touching.” This requires anyone who wants to initiate a touch to discover whether a touch is welcome, and clear nonverbal assent (holding out a hand to be shaken, opening up your arms to receive a hug) and prior relationship (which will already have established what is welcome) would meet that standard. [M.A. Melby convinced me an even better way to communicate this responsibility is with wording like "No touching other people without first confirming they are okay with it," which is clear about whose responsibility it is to find out, while still allowing nonverbal communication to accomplish it.]

Sex with Event Speakers

Finally, Stiefel included among “unwelcome” advances those “directed towards a subordinate in a hierarchical organization,” which perhaps indirectly criticizes some policies that aim to prohibit all intra-organizational sex. Such as, currently, the policy mandated within the Secular Student Alliance Speaker’s Bureau, which says “speakers should not engage in sexual behavior with students with respect to Speakers Bureau events.” On the one hand, in law and in standard bylaw practice, the term “should” does not have the force of “shall” (it means expected but not required, per the second definition of “shall” in Black’s Law Dictionary, the court-established three-prong test for the discretionary meaning of “shall,” or the 2000 IEEE instructional procedure standards, page 15), but it’s entirely possible the drafters of the SSA policy didn’t know that. And whether or not they did, some people have called for policies to prohibit all sexual activity between speakers and event staff and attendees.

I have already noted before that I believe this is overbearing and unrealistic. There is no relevant difference between a college venue sponsored by the SSA and one not, and college kids are not really kids, and the policy would make no sense if I were married to one, which gets us into “why is it okay if we’re married and not if we’re not?” That kind of distinction is for religious prudes, not freethinking humanists.

As Ron Lindsay aptly puts it:

CFI has no opposition to consensual sex among adults; indeed, this organization has long championed the right of individuals to engage in such conduct, and has protested restrictions on such conduct based on religious dogma. CFI’s policy does not interfere with consensual sex. It’s unwelcome sexual attention that is prohibited, not welcome sexual attention.

I personally have no problem abiding by the SSA policy when they are sponsoring me as a speaker (except when it makes no sense, e.g. if my wife became a student at a venue). But I don’t think it’s a good policy and I don’t encourage it being adopted by other organizations. If I were ever keen to violate it (that is, if I were single and wanted to fool around), I’d just withdraw from the SSA Speaker’s Bureau. But I have no reason to, since I’m married, making it a non-issue for me. But that can be unfair to single or polyamorous speakers, and thus the SSA policy is in my opinion discriminatory (it will result in the loss or turning away of speakers for unfair reasons). Unless their use of the word “should” is intended to mean not prohibited but only discouraged (but in that case it should perhaps be clarified).

Either way, I believe a better policy would be: “Speakers are not to solicit sexual behavior from students or staff.” If necessary, and any sexual behavior with students or staff is discouraged” could be added on. That covers what they actually want to prevent (harassment and horndogging, which is unprofessional) and minimize (romantic complications, and the attendant problems they can cause the organization), without prohibiting mutually consensual behavior among adults (which can certainly adhere to workplace etiquette), as that can then be initiated by a willing subordinate, without having been pressured or made uncomfortable by any advances from the speaker. The existence of power imbalances often calls for an etiquette of deferring decisions to a subordinate that require an exercise of their own free will. It does not require placing restraints on even a subordinate’s free will. That is excessive and unwarranted.

In sum, as Dave Silverman of American Atheists aptly put it, “I want people to have sex at our conferences.” Sexual harassment policies should not get in the way of that. And so AA and CFI have designed theirs not to. I believe everyone should follow their lead.

Comments

    • says

      Which one? I assume you mean the debate and storm stirred up by D.J. Grothe’s ill-conceived remarks as TAM promoter.

      I’ve remarked on Grothe’s missteps here, here and here. It was entirely foot-in-mouth syndrome and ham-fisted public relations on his part. There really wasn’t any issue with TAM, until he made TAM look bad with his stumbling over it.

      But that has nothing to do with the present topic. I haven’t read TAM’s latest policy so I don’t know if any of my observations pertain to it or have already been addressed by it. TAM was actually one of the first conferences to have a policy, before a discussion even started that other conventions should as well. Grothe could have used that as a positive marketing point. But he bungled it. Badly. The rest was just fallout.

  1. MV says

    Frankly, I didn’t care for the Todd Stiefel piece. Yes, it had substance but if you have specific issues and are a well known and respected figure, why not contact those organizations to fix the issues behind the scenes? Or at least hang around to respond to comments about your piece.

    I find the phrase:

    “all sexual attention that a recipient has stated is unwelcome, or that exceeds common standards of decency, is unwelcome.”

    to be problematic. First, “common standards of decency” is rather vague and based on the comment sections here on TFB and the larger world in general, I don’t think I’d care for the common standard. Second, the first part seems to place the responsibility on the victim and potentially excludes a hostile environment (individual comments made by multiple people). Sometimes being too specific is not a good thing.

    I would prefer “unwelcome sexual attention”. As someone who has worked for large (and small) companies and has a teaching cert., this is not a difficult concept. I’m curious if the people with all these concerns have ever worked for a company with such a policy and training (and if they actually paid attention) and if they reacted the same way.

    As to the terms “without explicit permission” and “without asking”, I don’t consider either of those to require verbal permission. I don’t understand why nonverbal communication won’t work here. If nonverbal actions won’t work (extending a hand to shake, extending arms to hug) why then is verbal permission sufficient? If you really want to be legalistic, you could say it requires written permission. In my experience, asking and explicit includes clear nonverbal communication.

    • says

      The phrase “common standards of decency” is actually not vague (in the sense that matters). In law there is a recognized standard of “reasonable man” (now “reasonable person”) by which all our laws are governed, and scienter attaches without a law having to specify what a reasonable person would think. Because it is assumed (rightly) that any intelligent person (who hasn’t been living in a cave for decades) will know what a typical jury would conclude if their actions were judged by one. It is in fact every citizen’s responsibility to have some feel for that. Otherwise, their lacking that feel is itself a culpability. What applies in law will apply to an event bylaw (especially as regards legal liability, which is what empowers staff to evict someone, for example).

      In general:

      (1) Lindsay’s example of an advance that “exceeds common standards of decency” is a good one, and you should read it. It has to be clearly indecent, not on the fence. If it’s on the fence, then it isn’t harassment unless the advance is refused and the person persists (and even then, they may only get a warning, and then tossed out without refund if they still persist). Most instances will stop once event or venue staff get involved in any way at all. Which is the main purpose of having a policy (that and the creating of awareness, expertise, and records, and liability protections).

      (2) Your notion that someone who is politely asked out is a “victim” is simply not the kind of values I or most anyone in this movement have any interest in promoting. That is not what a “victim” is. As Lindsay says, point blank: politely asking someone out is not harassment. Likewise, “individual comments made by multiple people” is unactionable (there is literally nothing an event staff could do about that) unless they are coordinating or aware of each other’s actions, in which case they would fall under harassment under the principles of conspiracy and can be collectively warned then collectively tossed out without refund. (Although I am unaware of this ever happening, a gang of people conspiring to make one person feel uncomfortable; outside of high school, that is. Nevertheless, it’s actionable–because, again, scienter attaches to all of them.)

      As to the meaning of “explicit,” I don’t know what the legal standard is, but the issue is communication: what will most people take it to mean. Many will take it to mean verbal (nonverbal being implicit). If many will take it otherwise, then that creates vagueness. Which voids a policy for vagueness. Thus one needs to be more clear. (Written permission would only apply if specifically stated. That’s a non-issue here, because no one has even suggested any policy do that, and none to my knowledge have or are at all likely to.)

  2. Marlo Rocci says

    This confirms my suspicion that the wording on the definition is broad enough that any conversation could land a man in trouble. Specifically I refer to:

    “d: it is done by someone who knows or should reasonably know that the attention will be unwelcome.”

    “reasonably” is dificult to pin down. This falls into the “a man should just know” category that requires men to be mind readers.

    I will accept the first “No” should be the final word. Period. And should only need to be said once.

    But the definition of what would be “reasonable” depends on who is involved and is too complex to allow a man’s reputation to be placed on such a term.

    • says

      Right. The word “no” is not difficult to pin down. No policy I know of defines hitting on someone as harassment, unless it is grossly indecent (“hey baby, wanna suck my c***?”), which is again not difficult to pin down. All reasonable people know what is way out of bounds like that. And if they don’t we don’t want them at events. What falls under harassment (apart from grossly indecent behavior like that) is persisting after you have been clearly refused. And that you have been clearly refused is again not difficult to pin down.

      But to be fair, “should reasonably know” is not as ambiguous as you think. In legal terms, ambiguous cases do not count as “should reasonably have known.” That phrase actually rules out ambiguous situations as meeting the definition, and thus the situation is not “difficult to pin down” as you claim. If judged by a jury of your peers (whether an actual jury or an event committee), will they unanimously agree you should have known? Only if the answer is yes is it the case that you “should reasonably have known.” Seen in that light, the rule that you “should reasonably have known that the attention will be unwelcome” is far less ambiguous than you assume.

  3. says

    “Or just prohibit “unwelcome touching.””

    I don’t think that is sufficient. The AA policy defines a problem – that many people simply do not know that others do not want to be touched.

    However, the policy as stated does seem to imply (at least to some) that people actually have to say, “May I shake your hand?” or “May I give you a hug?” even if they know the person or if non-verbal communication is more socially appropriate.

    I think it is important to make sure that the burden to establish consent is placed on the one initiating the touching – and that is crystal clear.

    Previously:
    “No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders—and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.”

    Perhaps:
    “No touching other people without clearly establishing that it is welcome. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders—and hugs. It is polite to simply ask. There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.”

    • says

      I disagree. Cultural norms demand an allowance for nonverbal assent (of the kinds I described, which are not ambiguous). How to word that is another matter, but the concept must be present, otherwise the rules go against all cultural norms and habits, and that will undermine the policy (because no one is going to adhere to unrealistic requirements).

    • says

      No, we agree.

      I’m just not agreeing with how that can be communicated effectively within the policy.

      My worry with the language you proposed is that it doesn’t strongly place the burden of obtaining consent on the person doing the touching. And unless you have established consent (for example if you have been friendly with someone for some time and you already KNOW zie is open to hugs, or having hir place hir arm on your shoulder) it IS absolutely the social norm (at least in my neck of the woods) to verbally ask someone before you hug them – if you do not know them well and even sometimes when you do.

      “Would you like a hug?” – “Are you a hug person?” etc. – “Can I give you a hug?”

      Hand-shaking is a little different – but notice that’s NOT in the list.

      It is absolutely rude (and sometimes absolutely horrid) to not establish consent before you touch someone, either verbally or non-verbally. I’m sure we agree on this.

      The policy should make it clear that it is the person doing the touching or initiating the touching to establish that it is welcome. Simply mentioning that asking is a polite way of establishing this I think is helpful. I don’t think that implies that asking is the ONLY way of establishing that the touching is welcome.

      Simply saying “no unwelcome touching” doesn’t establish strongly enough where the burden of establishment this is. Now, (full disclosure) I wouldn’t be as worried about this if it weren’t for Loftus’s post about the subject where he essentially says that the way these things should be handled is that a person who is being touched should communicate that it is unwelcome AFTER zie is touched.

      Too many people, it seems, think that unless someone communicates to them otherwise, that they can essentially do anything they want until which time “no” is communicated. You know, the old “silence is implied consent” crap.

      Not to put too fine of a point on it (since I suspect we agree on principles, just not on wording), not placing the burden of establishing consent on the person initiating the touching can lead to really pretty horrible things.

      A disturbing example is the case where a physically imposing man THOUGHT the woman he was with in an isolated area was consenting to sex until, after the deed, she asked, “Are you going to kill me now?” If I remember correctly from what I read about it earlier, she was just so afraid of him, that she thought that if she resisted or said “no” that she was going to be killed. http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/rape-case-don-juan-wins-retrial-134813118.html?viewAllComments=y

      Just saying, asking is not too much to ask. It may not make sense in some situations, and that’s why I agree that the current wording is too strong. However, the principle of asking before touching is worth a mention in there somewhere.

    • says

      I quite agree (and there is no harm in verbal requests) but I don’t think it’s necessary to verbally ask, as long as there is a clear nonverbal query and reply (which does mean a hugger must communicate intent and wait for a response before completing).

      The issue that remains is whether a policy communicates this. I would take it so. Saying you are not to pursue unwelcome touching implicitly puts the responsibility on the toucher to ascertain whether a touch is welcome. To just touch people blindly without ascertaining assent is reckless disregard. After all, not even caring whether you have assent is tantamount to not having assent.

      However, I can imagine some people might not think that clearly and, like you say, operate on the assumption of universal implied assent. I think that leads to a better variant of the AA policy: “No touching other people without first confirming they are okay with it” (which leaves open how you do that). In fact, I will amend my original article accordingly.

    • TychaBrahe says

      I think shaking hands is so much part of the cultural norm that it really should be assumed that it is OK. In any case, all someone has to do is cross their arms or clasp their own hands as Asians do when bowing, and their hand cannot be shaken. The added, “I prefer not to shake hands,” can be used to clarify.

      Hugging between strangers as a greeting is not part of the social norm. In addition, it’s possible for a person with strength and speed to hug someone who isn’t willing to hug in return, and blocking an unwanted hug, such as by grabbing both of the other’s hands in yours so that your arms separate you, requires a bit of strength. In addition, if you don’t wish to shake hands, you have a bit of a problem using such a maneuver to circumvent a hug.

      A person who wishes to hug another person should extend their arms outward, inviting the other person to step forward and complete the hug if he or she so desires. No verbal assent would be required.

    • says

      Hugging between strangers as a greeting is not part of the social norm.

      It kind of is in some places. But even so, seeking assent (even nonverbally, as you point out) should be promoted as a universal standard.

    • says

      Well, let’s try this again.

      I don’t think that my suggestion for wording would disallow non-verbal consent. It simply places the burden for establishing consent on the person doing the touching. It suggests asking as a polite way to establish this.

      Your wording doesn’t do that because too many people work under the assumption that silence is implied consent and they assume that the touching is welcome until the person being touched communicates otherwise.

      Also, it is not “against all cultural norms” to ask before hugging someone. People do it all the time. It is the most polite thing to do – or at the very least the safest thing to do.

      However, I agree that the policy should not demand that someone verbally ask when consent is established in some other clear way – such as extending your arms in the “asking for a hug” gesture, which is similar to the extending your hand in the “asking for a hand shake” gesture.

    • says

      Sorry about that – my comments are being wonky. I thought that my other comment had been lost or deleted, so I made a new one.

      Oops!

  4. George From NY says

    I would posit a substantial difference between hugging someone vs handshaking. Yes, they’re all of a piece as “physical contact” but then so is tackling someone to the ground, linebacker-style.

    Hugs – even the friendship types – are very physically intimate and negate ‘personal space’ utterly. Handshakes do not.

    Declining a handshake is simply a matter of smiling while saying something like, “I don’t shake hands. Nothing personal. It’s just not my thing.” Boom. Done. A moment of awkwardness, perhaps, then you both move on to conversation (or whatever).

    Declining an incoming hug is a wholly different affair. You might well have to literally shove the other person away if you cannot abruptly move out of range. You’ve just gone from friendly greeting to physical altercation in an eye-blink.

    Also, size matters (lulz) in hugs as it does not in handshakes. At 6’3″ and 300 lbs, it is a trivial matter for me to moderate my grip to something appropriate for shaking the hand of a young child or an elderly person. Hugging them would entail a level of care akin to handling porcelain artworks, so I don’t even attempt it.

    I just tackle them, linebacker-style.

    • says

      I agree. Someone has to clearly indicate receptiveness to a hug, and that can be done nonverbally. Just hugging someone, assuming it’s okay, is really not polite anyway. Accordingly, you should indicate interest in a hug with a nonverbal hug gesture before moving in to complete the hug, to gibe the recipient time to react and signal. This is really how people should behave anyway.

  5. says

    The argument was never that bars and restaurants do not have harassment policies, but rather that the harassment policy of a skeptics conference do not extend to bars and restaurants nearby

    So the specific harassment policy at a skeptics conference is toothless when it comes to behaviors in bars at another nearby location being visited by skeptics attending the conference. If this is combined with the assumption that most of the sexual harassment occurring at conference happens in these bars or restaurants, then the practical effect of a detailed harassment policy at a skeptics conference is at best unclear (even though having the policy to begin with is very laudable). At worst, it could be counterproductive if it just moves the remaining sexual harassment that occurs at the conference to the bars frequented by attendees. Surely, human predators can adapt? Even taking into account that these bars have harrasment policies of their own, this did not appear to be that effective for those recorded instances of sexual harassment that has occurred in those locales (because they _did_ happen). If so, there is no reason to suppose that they will be effective enough in the future if their level of enforcement is constant and plausibly not modified by what sort of harassment policy the conference itself uses.

    But this is an empirical question that I think will be elucidated by the natural experiment of more conference adopting harassment policies and I can of course be completely wrong on this matter.

    • says

      The argument was never that bars and restaurants do not have harassment policies, but rather that the harassment policy of a skeptics conference do not extend to bars and restaurants nearby.

      They can, though. In three ways: if the venue has rented a dedicated room (Skepticon once reserved half of an entire karaoke bar for a Skepticon function only); and if a conference attendee commits an offense at a conference-announced meetup location, it would still be within conference purview to revoke their registration for further attendance at the conference; and even when a conference attendee is not an offender, a conference policy would also give conference staff leverage with a bar or restaurant when calling for people to be expelled from the establishment (if the offender is a conference attendee, they are bound by the policy, so the business would welcome the legal justification, and even if the offender is not a conference attendee, the threat of taking the crowd elsewhere would motivate any business to comply with conference staff wishes).

      The original point I made, however, was that Thunderf00t claimed no business would have or advertise a policy because it would drive business away. The exact opposite is the case (most places do in fact have them, and often advertise them specifically to increase business). And as for restaurants and pubs (and hotels), so for any other venue (like a conference). Likewise, when conferences organize meetups like that, they can negotiate with the venue (whether a bar, club, hotel, or restaurant) to have their policy cover that night’s festivities (in exchange for the business draw). And finally, a policy-conscious conference can have this very issue in mind when selecting an outside venue for a meet, and select businesses with policies already more in line with what they want.

  6. Nick says

    This is certainly a contentious issue at hand, but one thing that sets us apart from the religious is our ability to let ideas stand and fall on their own merits, without censoring minority opinions or banning people we don’t agree with…

  7. tc2012 says

    Part 1: As a psychologist who works with service members, I have an active interest in this subject, though I do not claim an expertise. I think Thunderf00t’s argument is very common–wrong, but common, especially in the military. Cultural elements make it difficult for individuals to fully understand the extent of this problem, which impairs the ability to enact corrective measures. In fact, I thought the whole back and forth with Thunderf00t and other members in the FTB community were staged at some level to make a point. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case because it so closely mirrored what I have experienced in the military (by very reasonable and good-hearted people). I have tried to read all of the responses and watch videos related to Thunderf00t’s arguments. Some, like this, are great and bring experts along with empirical data to help us make more reasonable decisions. However, some arguments were more emotional with a clear lack of empirical data in support of their arguments. I think there are room for both, but as scientists we should give appropriate weight to empirically based data.

  8. tc2012 says

    Part 2: Because of my experiences with many good people in the military that reason like Thunderf00t related to this issue (sexual harassment is a small problem), that kind of thinking is understandable–wrong, but understandable to me. Because his arguments are wrong, we should make attempts to correct it. Basically, Thunderf00t’s argument was specifically that he didn’t think conference organizers needed to adopt a sexual harassment policy because the problem at the conferences themselves is small. He went on to also state that the sexual harassment at conferences mostly occurs at bars and that conference organizers should not attempt to police behaviors outside of the conference.

    So here is where I get confused: Thunderf00t is claiming that he has been asked to resign and subsequently kicked off of FTB over this issue. I don’t know this to be true, but I find this surprising and confusing. Is that an appropriate measure to take? Maybe, but one would think that there would be more reasoned efforts to communicate on the issue first. Am I missing important information?

    • says

      Thunderf00t was not booted because of any positions he took (many of us at FtB have taken positions against each other, even sternly: e.g. I disagreed quite strongly with Taslima Nasrin on the morality and legalization of sex work). He was booted because he was a dick to everyone behind the scenes (he was rude, annoying, uncollegial, impossible to work with, and disrupted our ability to work together in our private communications).

    • Chance says

      “He was booted because he was a dick to everyone behind the scenes (he was rude, annoying, uncollegial, impossible to work with, and disrupted our ability to work together in our private communications).”

      I find it upsetting that he’s being kicked for these non-transparent reasons. If he’s being a dick, I really want to know how. For that matter, from an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard for me to imagine any kind of behind-the-scenes behavior meriting him the boot. In other words, where’s the evidence? Until then, I’m going to assume PZ is just being an asshole D:

    • says

      If he’s being a dick, I really want to know how…[because] it’s hard for me to imagine any kind of behind-the-scenes behavior meriting him the boot.

      That’s the fallacy of imagination: “everything I cannot imagine, cannot exist.”

      Surely you have had Christians use that fallacy on you a bazillion times. So you should be keen to avoid it yourself.

      Pick any work environment: if you have not worked in such an environment yourself, you simply will not know all the ways it can be disrupted and made to be unproductive and uncomfortable and lower the morale of other employees, all because of the behavior of a single employee. And this happens all the time. Right down to those employees getting fired. If you have never seen this happen, or can’t even imagine it happening, that demonstrates the woeful limits of your experience and imagination.

      The fact of the matter is, what goes on in a private work environment is protected by privacy bylaws and basic human etiquette. You are not entitled to read my personal email or anyone else’s. And it would be unconscionable of me to post all of Thunderf00t’s private emails, or anyone else’s. I am also prohibited by company bylaws from doing so, for good reason (business conversations can only be honest and frank when all parties know they will not be published).

      So you need to just get over it. If you like Thunderf00t’s work, go enjoy it where it now resides. Why should anyone care that it isn’t here?

      [P.S. PZ has now gone on record saying he voted to boot Thunderf00t because of his unyielding public position on a values issue that was not in accord with the values promoted by the FtB network; although that's certainly true, I can only tell you that that was not a factor in casting my vote. Crommunist has also provided a good albeit nonspecific summary of the various public and private reasons that he voted him out. On Crommunist's list, the only one that influenced me was item 6, and to a lesser extent 4, although 1, 3, 5, and 7 I felt were indeed embarrassing enough to disqualify him on poor work product alone, but that at least I thought could have been fixed--if Thunderf00t were the sort of person who could be worked with, and not the intolerable jerk that he actually was.]

    • Chance says

      “If you have never seen this happen, or can’t even imagine it happening, that demonstrates the woeful limits of your experience and imagination.”

      I didn’t say I couldn’t imagine it, I said it was hard for me to imagine, especially on a blog site where you don’t directly physically work with people and most of the work I imagine you do is done individually and not as a group.

      “You are not entitled to read my personal email or anyone else’s. And it would be unconscionable of me to post all of Thunderf00t’s private emails, or anyone else’s. I am also prohibited by company bylaws from doing so, for good reason (business conversations can only be honest and frank when all parties know they will not be published).

      So you need to just get over it. If you like Thunderf00t’s work, go enjoy it where it now resides. Why should anyone care that it isn’t here?”

      I understand, but this whole thing is an unfortunate mess that casts an shadow over the whole website. I don’t like how everyone is jumping thunderf00t’s case especially in the way that they are.

      “Hey, maybe we should have an online poll in the comments about who was right! Nah, that would be stupid.”

      The data PZ is referring to here actually is relevant to how people perceive the blog, even if it’s not relevant to why he was fired.

      In addition, Crommunist resulting to ad hominem attacks, citing “he is a shitty blogger” as 4 of his 7 “reasons for firing thunderf00t” doesn’t bode well either.

      I’m just scratching the surface of the problem and it looks pretty shitty, but like you say, I can’t know what goes on behind the scenes.. so I can’t really draw any useful conclusions about the character of this transgression other than it seems simply unfortunate for all involved.

    • says

      I understand, but this whole thing is an unfortunate mess that casts an shadow over the whole website.

      Why? We didn’t like working with him. End of story. This isn’t a soap opera.

      I don’t like how everyone is jumping thunderf00t’s case especially in the way that they are.

      No one is “jumping thunderf00t’s case” on anything but his public comments. Which you can read for yourself, so there is no mystery there, no secrets to reveal, as to why people are criticizing him now.

      The data PZ is referring to here actually is relevant to how people perceive the blog, even if it’s not relevant to why he was fired.

      Really? A poll of fans of Thunderf00t (who only saw Thunderf00t’s side of the argument in the video being polled) is “representative” of how “people” perceive his exchange with PZ? If you believe that, then you have a serious problem with logic.

      Thunderf00t has long championed, with biting humor, the proper use of scientific instruments and methods, against bogus and fallacious uses by creationists. So when he turns to a trick used by creationists (and FOX news even), and gets slammed for it, he deserved the egg on his face over that. That was indeed an embarrassing thing for him to do.

      Crommunist resulting to ad hominem attacks, citing “he is a shitty blogger”

      Oh, I see. You do have a problem with logic. Please, please, please learn what “ad hominem” means before saying stupid things like this. Honestly. “You suck at your job” is not an attack on the man’s character; it’s an attack on his ability to do the job, the job from which he was fired. That is not an ad hominem. It’s a valid point.

      He was indeed a crappy blogger, using the style formatting of a high school kid, and writing terribly and in a disorganized fashion, getting his opponent’s arguments wrong, and ignoring their valid points against his, and wasting all his time on one issue and producing nothing else of interest. But as I said, I could have helped him shuck those bad habits and write and format better. If he was interested in doing better or working with any of us on being better at his job. But he wasn’t. He was just a dick to everyone.

    • Chance says

      Oh my. I guess I should’ve been more clear in my posts. If anything you should be criticizing me for not really offering a substantial goal post. Let me clarify and resolve:

      “Why? We didn’t like working with him. End of story. This isn’t a soap opera.”

      Not liking working with him would be one thing, but as I’ve been trying to say, the whole thing looks bad for everyone from the outside. Both sides appear polarized, unreasonable, and both sides have resulted to mud slinging. Attacking each other’s professional credibility, etc. over a blog? Come on. PZ saying tf00t is basically an enemy of the enlightenment or that he somehow doesn’t understand it? This stuff is just childish. This is the last thing I want to see on a free thinking forum.

      In particular, I don’t think any of your criticisms have been unfair, but I think PZ went overboard in trying to drag the character of thunderf00t in the dirt. Same with Crommunist when he goes out of his way to slam tf00t for being a shitty writer 4x, (again, i’m just taking a wide shot of this from the outside). If it were just tf00ts writing that Crommunist wanted to criticize, one mention of it would be enough. Doing it 4x is just an attempt at a personal attack. Again, if it were merely a valid or useful argument as you suggest, why just repeat it as a blanket statement (i.e. you’re shit at writing) multiple times when you can just say it once, or moreover why not just help the guy out and point out whats wrong with his writing? (I’m aware that apparently behind the scenes many of the FTBloggers tried to do this and were met with dickish behavior by tf00t, I’m just pointing out such behavior begs these questions which Crommunist then leaves unanswered). Again, Crommunist can and should say whatever he wants, it just looks bad in this case.

      “A poll of fans of Thunderf00t (who only saw Thunderf00t’s side of the argument in the video being polled) is ‘representative’ of how ‘people’ perceive his exchange with PZ? If you believe that, then you have a serious problem with logic.”

      Well, then, it’s a good thing I don’t believe that. Which is why I didn’t use the phrase “representative” in the first place. Did thunderf00t do so explicitly? All that poll points out is that tf00t’s following agrees with him pretty overwhelmingly, which shouldn’t be any surprise, but is still nonetheless _relevant_ to (not representative of) how a large number of people view the blog, which is what I was pointing out in the first place.

      “If he was interested in doing better or working with any of us on being better at his job. But he wasn’t. He was just a dick to everyone.”

      Your elucidation of the situation has been helpful and reasonable. I’m grateful for it. I just wish everyone could’ve been more understanding in this situation, because it’s important we all get along.

      “It may surprise you to learn that FTBloggers disagree with each other all the damn time.” -Crommunist

      This is true. In fact, this is integral to what it means to be a critical thinker, but FTB typically does so without ever personally attacking one another, and that’s what this whole ordeal has blown up into, and that’s why in my eyes it is a regrettable blemish on our community. I’ll get over it.

    • says

      Chance:

      Both sides appear polarized, unreasonable, and both sides have resulted to mud slinging. Attacking each other’s professional credibility, etc. over a blog? Come on. PZ saying tf00t is basically an enemy of the enlightenment or that he somehow doesn’t understand it? This stuff is just childish. This is the last thing I want to see on a free thinking forum.

      That is all public record stuff. So it doesn’t really pertain to what we were talking about. If you think PZ’s blogging about tf00t is lame, then go complain there. Don’t attribute to me things PZ has said or done. And likewise, as PZ and I are both part of FtB, don’t attribute “to FtB” things only PZ says or does, but that I (and others on this network) have not.

      Crommunist can and should say whatever he wants, it just looks bad in this case.

      I’m not sure what you think looks bad in Crommunist’s analysis. Him claiming that tf00t was a shitty blogger? Do you really contest that opinion?

      All that poll points out is that tf00t’s following agrees with him pretty overwhelmingly, which shouldn’t be any surprise, but is still nonetheless _relevant_ to (not representative of) how a large number of people view the blog, which is what I was pointing out in the first place.

      Then you aren’t a real skeptic. You are a dogmatist distorting reality to make your position sound more reasonable than it is.

      This is what tf00t said that poll proved:

      …this is a prima facie case for what I have been trying to tell deaf ears on freethoughtblogs for the past week, that their views are poorly positioned to achieve their stated objectives and are widely unrepresentative of the wider rationalist community

      That is simply embarrassing. Notice how his “widely unrepresentative of the wider rationalist community” becomes distorted in your apologetics into “how a large number of people view the blog.” You have altered reality because, I suppose, you don’t want to accept the reality: that tf00t said something phenomenally stupid and so embarrassingly unscientific, for a man who claims to champion sound scientific reasoning against those who abuse it, that he should be ashamed of it. That is what PZ said. And PZ is right about that.

      Not only did tf00t use a massively fallacious pseudoscientific tactic to “prove himself right” (like any young earth creationist or FOX news analyst might), he even used this as a basis for recommending policy (claiming his poll proves FtB’s “views are poorly positioned to achieve their stated objectives”). Imagine a young earth creationist or FOX news analyst trying that: making a one-sided video about a debate, then taking a poll of their own fans who watched the video, and then asserting from what those fans said that atheists should shut up about whatever they are talking about, because their fans don’t like their distorted misrepresentation of it so therefore it must be “poorly positioned to achieve their stated objectives”

      I just wish everyone could’ve been more understanding in this situation, because it’s important we all get along.

      We agree. And for that very reason we tried, for almost two weeks. We made every effort to find a way to work together. tf00t just wasn’t interested.

      FTB typically does so without ever personally attacking one another, and that’s what this whole ordeal has blown up into, and that’s why in my eyes it is a regrettable blemish on our community.

      This was all tf00t’s doing. Because it didn’t start out that way. It started out as critiquing ideas (see my post in response to tf00t, which was the first one to air…which, curiously, tf00t never responded to, not even once that I am aware of). Even PZ’s first post was entirely a critique of what tf00t said, not tf00t himself, exactly as had been our practice before. Which tf00t then ridiculously misrepresented (missing every actual point PZ made), and it was tf00t’s escalating responses that then became personal (calling his opponents such epithets as “incompetent PC doofuses” and “simply batshit crazy” and openly questioning PZ’s “ability to act professionally and think coherently” and so on). While all this was going on, he was being unfriendly and uncooperative with everyone in our virtual office, to the point that it became impossible to work there. He was the one lighting matches to bridges. We just gave up on bailing water.

    • Chance says

      “Notice how his ‘widely unrepresentative of the wider rationalist community’ becomes distorted in your apologetics into “how a large number of people view the blog.”

      How a large number of people view the blog IS relevant, but not representative. I wasn’t aware that tfoot had made such a statement, which is why I asked rather seriously, “Did thunderf00t do so explicitly?” Apparently he did, which I fully agree is bad/fallacious reasoning, so I’m not apologizing for him. Don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions like this:

      “Then you aren’t a real skeptic. You are a dogmatist distorting reality to make your position sound more reasonable than it is.”

      It assumes I had full knowledge of the situation and knew tf00t had said that, it also assumes my intent/position is to defend thunderf00t, which is not my intention at all. Also, stating a plain matter of fact (that a lot of people agreed with thunderf00t) as merely relevant could hardly be construed as dogmatism or a failure to be skeptical. If I agreed with thunderf00t that this is representative of the wider community of rationalists, then yes, I would have been behaving dogmatically.

      “Him claiming that tf00t was a shitty blogger? Do you really contest that opinion?”

      No, I don’t contest Crommunists’ opinion. As I pointed out before, I contest the way he voiced it, by repeating it 4x as if to make a personal attack out of it. THAT is the behavior I think reflects poorly on Crommunist, and if you aggregate PZ and Crommunist’s behavior, I think it’s perfectly reasonable as an outsider to see their behavior and think FtB might be a little out of touch. (I do not hold that view, though, because it seems like tf00t was just being an ass all along, judging by our correspondence here. My opinion isn’t very strong either way, though, becuase these situations have a tendency to be opaque from the outside, which is in large part what I was originally complaining about.)

      “If you think PZ’s blogging about tf00t is lame, then go complain there. Don’t attribute to me things PZ has said or done. And likewise, as PZ and I are both part of FtB, don’t attribute “to FtB” things only PZ says or does, but that I (and others on this network) have not.”

      I have never attributed to you things PZ has done or said, so I’m not sure why you’d think that. I came here to get your insight on the situation. I AM, however, justified in attributing to FtB the removal of tfoot, which seems to have been a democratic decision made by the whole team. But to be clear, I don’t attribute other FtB bloggers for individual comments made by other FtB individuals.

      “While all this was going on, he was being unfriendly and uncooperative with everyone in our virtual office, to the point that it became impossible to work there. He was the one lighting matches to bridges. We just gave up on bailing water.”

      I don’t blame you, you gotta draw a lines omewhere. It’s a shame, and I wonder what crawled up his ass and why he would be behaving in such a bizaare way. It’s hard to assess someone’s character from a few video blogs, but I’ve always thought tf00t must be a pretty cool guy based on his videos. There was one other case where he presented a weird video being all whiney about people badgering him about the audio in one of his interviews (i think the one with PZ, actually) and threatened to quit making videos, but other than that everything he’s posted has been pretty kick ass, so it’s really a shame in my eyes this rift has developed between the FtB and thunderf00t. Hopefully there are no hard feelings between anyone, but I worry that some individuals from FtB and tf00t himself will not let it go that easily.

      Anyway, nice try on calling me out haha. Better luck next time ;p

  9. says

    I think you bring up some good points, but I have one place of disagreement.

    I do think that establishing consent for hugs is important, and because of the way most women are socialized, when a guy goes in to hug you, 9 times out of 10 the woman is going to accept. (Statistic pulled totally out of my ass, based on personal experience and conversation with other women.) A handshake, yeah, that’s easy enough to avoid, and if making a scene or just making someone uncomfortable isn’t worth it, it’s a two-second contact. A hug, on the other hand…

    A hug can be scary. I say this as a survivor or sexual assault, so I know that my view on this is clouded by past experience and will not be shared by all (or even the majority) or women. But it is scary, to me, to be hugged by a strange man I don’t know, especially if he’s bigger than me. Yes, it’s my own hang-up. But I should be comfortable at atheist conferences, too, I think. And I don’t think a guy’s desire to hug–even what is almost always just a friendly, perfectly innocent desire–trumps my desire not to be hugged.

    If most guys who go in for a hug would be comfortable being non-verbally rejected, that would be fine, too. But either they aren’t watching for or just don’t pick up on the body cues–shirking away, pulling in on oneself, turning aside–or they just don’t care. And a lot of times, even “nice guys” will get irritated if you don’t hug them. They take it as a rejection, or a personal insult. These guys will push you. “Come on, it’s just a hug. What, do I smell? Jesus, I’m not going to hurt you.” So even when I am very uncomfortable, it is just not worth the scene or possible verbal abuse. And this is all a decision that takes place in a split second, so it’s not the best thought out. I can’t put together a pro-con list for the hug, and I have to make my best determination on whether he is going to a) pitch a fit if I refuse, b) take it as an invitation if I accept, and c) what is the wisest course of action for my personal comfort and safety, all very quickly.

    Maybe people think this is a massive overreaction on my part. I grew up in a church where hugging was a normal part of every service. I used to find a family member to latch onto or hide in the women’s bathroom until a particular guy left, because he was creepy. He used the nonverbal pressure for hugging to his advantage, and I felt like taking a shower after each hug. When I brought it up to my parents, I was told that I was being judgemental, mean, crazy, overreacting.

    I don’t think I should have to deal with this same pressure at an atheist convention (or at work). Again, a guy (or girl’s) desire to hug shouldn’t trump my desire not to be touched. At best, I’m going to feel uncomfortable for a few seconds. At worst–if the guy sets off alarm bells, if he hugs me in a way that feels innapropriate (and I’m sorry, I really can’t define that; it’s a feeling), and for sure if he doesn’t let go when I try to pull away (which happens way too often, even from “nice guys”)–at worst, I’m going to have a panic attack. No, my personal issues are not the fault of every random guy, and I have to take responsibility for them. There are a lot of little ways that living with PTSD has changed my life, and like with any disability, I have to work to navigate the world with my own set of challenges. I’m not going to go into all of that; it’s not relevent. But I do think that I have the right not to be hugged, and I shouldn’t have to put my dislike of confrontation over my dislike of personal contact.

    It’s not hard, by the way. Guys do it every once in a while, and you have no idea how much I appriciate it when they do. A simple, “Do you like hugs?” is great, and, most importantly, not trying to pressure or shame when I answer, “No, sorry.”

    Anyway, my two cents. Sorry if this got too long.

    • says

      I don’t think a guy’s desire to hug–even what is almost always just a friendly, perfectly innocent desire–trumps my desire not to be hugged

      It doesn’t. But you still are responsible for communicating “no.” And he (not all huggers are men, but the same rule applies to all) is responsible for giving you a reasonable opportunity to communicate “no.” That’s the only cultural standard that can work.

      But that does mean, for example, if “they aren’t watching for or just don’t pick up on the body cues” then they need to learn manners, and a policy in place will create the authority to teach them by. “That was impolite” are words we should perhaps all use more often, to enculturate our community into some basic etiquette.

      (And BTW, pressuring you for a hug or shaming you for not wanting one is just douchy, IMO. And you can quote me on that.)

      P.S. And no, your comment wasn’t too long–it was actually a very efficient relay of an abundance of very good information a lot people would benefit from reading. I had received similar knowledge from several people in the past, so you are not alone in these respects. So thanks for sharing it here.

  10. tychism says

    I just had to leave a comment here expressing my sheer delight at finding a comment section where people aren’t ripping each others throats out.

    Having just read PZ Myers posts, and the ensuing comment war, I was under the impression that the community of FtB is comprised of very angry feminists who were determined to swear like drunken sailors at anyone who dared raise an objection. Needless to say that neither side provided empirical or expert data of any kind.

    Finding your blog has ignited a tiny flame of hope in me. Well done, Richard Carrier.

    • says

      “as Dave Silverman of American Atheists aptly put it, ‘I want people to have sex at our conferences.'”
      Skepticon 2010 some of my friends had a Skorgy (Skepticon-orgy). I told them I’d attend if Greta Christina did too. And it turns out they did invite her!, and she gracefully declined. I felt the need to let her know the next day that we only thought she’d be interested since she had previously expressed on her blog a fantasy of having real-live “groupies” who would literally throw themselves at her for sexual servitude, and that at least now she could die happy knowing it had become a reality.
      Though now that I look back (with hindsight gained from the Great Harassment Policy Debate of ’12), I don’t know if that confession made the situation less awkward or more creepy… :(

  11. OtherSider says

    I … read this, and it makes complete sense.

    Is this standard widely disagreed with? I’ve seen no changes.

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