I have been going back and forth with a commenter under the handle ‘geraldmcgrew’ who was ousted from a Pharyngula comment thread. He feels that his expulsion was unfair. For the record, while I understand why he received the rough treatment he did, I think the initial response to his question was egregious and unfair. I don’t have a banning procedure here, but I am satisfied that geraldmcgrew’s behaviour (specifically, repeatedly posing a question to which he had received several responses) was the reason for his banning, not simply the fact of his dissent.
That being said, he asked the following question in response to the related question of sexual harassment policies:
Except “being hit on = sexual harassment” is exactly what is repeatedly stated in this community. Heck, it was expressed in PZ’s first post to TF!
“The argument encompasses meetings, but also the larger geek and atheist culture, which turns out to be pretty damned sexist. You do not correct the broader problem by turning a blind eye to the specifics; it doesn’t work to say that you reject misogyny, but oh, that meeting there? It’s OK if you hit on women there. It’s OK if you abuse women in a bar; bars are free-range markets for men to exercise their will.”
Hitting on someone is lumped in with abuse of women? Sheesh…
My response to this question, coloured as it was by my zeal to provide a mindful response (as opposed to the accusations that I “mindlessly” defend anything), ran a bit long. I am posting it here both to avoid making the already-loaded comments section of that post grow to an absurd length, but also to highlight what I think is a reasonable response to a question that I suspect many people do not fully understand.
Any unwanted sexual approach technically qualifies as harassment by definition. Harassment is a subset of abuse, yes.
I think the point you were trying to make (and please correct me if I get something wrong here) is that with a definition drawn so wide, you run the risk of a flood of ‘frivolous’ claims from people who are propositioned in a way that would be entirely socially acceptable somewhere else. Because the organizers have created an explicit policy in which any kind of unwanted approach is harassment, and there is a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for harassment, there is the possibility of someone behaving in a way that a reasonable person would not consider harassment, but the conference would be bound by their own rules to eject that person. That would be unfair to the ejected party, because ze would have no reasonable way of knowing that hir behaviour was unwanted until after the approach. Is that more or less a fair encapsulation of your point?
If it is, then I will try to clarify the refutation that the Pharyngula commenters offered (picked out from in between the insults). The first thing is that the likelihood of someone lodging a frivolous complaint is pretty low. In fact, this “but what if the accusation is false” argument is often used to dismiss the stories of rape victims (I am not not NOT accusing you of defending that logic – I am merely trying to explain a possible reason why you received the response you did). What is far more likely is that any complaints brought to the organizers are happening because all reasonable avenues of personal redress (for example, declining a polite but unwelcome invitation the first time it is proffered) have been exhausted*.
Second, as many noted, not every violation will result in an immediate expulsion. To suggest otherwise is a bit strange. There are gradations of response, which start at a verbal warning and ultimately end with expulsion. While the policy does not explicitly note that, it also does not explicitly state that the conference will exercise no discretion whatsoever in determining the severity of response. What it does say is that the conference decides what is harassment, not the person accused of harassment. I am having difficulty imagining a circumstance under which the conference would not agree with their own policy decision.
Third, this debate has always been about whether or not conferences are taking an active role in ensuring that events are places where participants can feel safe. Despite TF’s insistence otherwise, harassment is a serious issue at these events, and if we want to attract more women to these events we have to listen when they say something is a problem. Not all women have said harassment is a problem, but some have cited it as a real barrier, and it is something we have the power to control. Harassment policies accomplish two things: 1) they send a message to attendees that the organizers have been listening and are taking steps to address the problem raised by a minority group (in some way validating their inclusion in the larger community); 2) they empower the organizers to take active steps, rather than leaving themselves open to reprisal if they do act but have not made their expectations clear. Without a policy, the only recourse is to involve the police (as people have been stupidly suggesting repeatedly). Police involvement in someone being ‘creepy’ is likely not going to go very far, and up will go the cries of “I think the cops are a bit of an overreaction, don’t you?” Allowing the conference staff themselves to intervene sides solidly on the side of people who, up until now, have felt like they don’t have a lot of allies.
And that’s what this whole thing is about – rebalancing the scales to ensure that the maximum number of people feel comfortable. Yes, there will be some people who are so litigious and faux-principled that they will refuse to attend an event because “adults should be allowed to do whatever they want”. The problem is that this is the status quo attitude, and we have begun to recognize that the status quo is untenable. It has made these events a very unwelcoming place to many people who we would very much like in attendance. Something has to be done, and sexual harassment policies accomplish the things I have described above. Yes, they can and should be calibrated to make sure that we don’t end up making completely unreasonable decisions (like banning people in the absence of a complaint, or allowing a non-involved third party to lodge a complaint because ze doesn’t like the way something looks – neither of these are likely, I am just spitballing ideas here), but it does not mean that they are a bad idea.
I will close with the advice that someone else gave you somewhere in that monster of a thread: let’s see if they cause problems before we start imagining doomsday scenarios. If the policies become significantly cumbersome, we can identify the problems and change them. But it does us little good to start inventing problems in the absence of them actually happening, especially if there is no precedent upon which they are built.
*Note: anyone who thinks this is an appropriate time to bring up ‘the elevator incident’ is still deeply confused about why what happened that night was problematic, and why there was a subsequent fight after Rebecca suggested that people shouldn’t do that.