A commenter going by the handle ‘Lee’ has been asking some pointed questions about how to respond to claims of discrimination. I tried to give a robust answer, which ended up ballooning into a full-length post.
I’ll respond by bringing the two into one. If someone claims they have been discriminated against, or they feel they have been discriminated against, what would you suggest as the next step?
1. investigate their claim, ascertain the details, come to a conclusion.
2. accept the claim, start accusing.
When you sort of scoffed at #4, I read that as endorsing (2) above. Perhaps I’m mistaken? I mean, I don’t want to appear to be dodging your questions, I think they’re good questions, but they’re not precisely relevant to the argument presented in #4. They assume that you would take route #1. Your second question seems to me to put that person’s participation into a higher priority slot than, say, checking if they’re full of it or not before making accusations.
So instead of jumping right to invective and scoffing back, I’m hoping to get an idea for why you reject #4 [#4 referring to point 4 in this week's Movie Friday, and my disagreement that there is a meaningful difference between perceived and real discrimination - C].
And in a separate comment…
I suppose a correlated question would be: is it your position that we should take anyone and everyone’s non-rational (i.e. no grounds established) fears or feelings as actionable representations of the world, simply on the off chance that those fears or feelings may turn out to be grounded in reality, or because similar claims have been grounded in reality in the past?
The key to my objection to #4 is here:
therefore the onus is on them to prove that they have, or STFU and come to conferences where they feel afraid anyway.
Members of certain groups are not coming to conferences. There are a wide variety of reasons why this may be the case, including, but not limited to mere lack of interest. When we look at other types of events where there is underrepresentation from these groups, we find that discrimination (both perceived and actual) plays a role. Sure, it’s not the whole thing, but it’s one thing that we know happens. We have no reason to suspect that this wouldn’t be the case in the context of participation (at cons, or at other things in general) in the skeptical movement. We can address discrimination, whether perceived or actual, by learning how to talk about and understand discrimination, in order to foster a more inclusive and welcoming environment.
If we instead respond to the issue by saying “prove it”, and in the absence of an empirical standard by which discrimination could be measured, we create a ‘no-win’ situation whereby all claims of discrimination are subject to an impossible standard of proof. The only types of discrimination that are addressed, therefore, are those that the majority group agrees about. When that majority group is not particularly experienced when it comes to discrimination (which I understand is a contentious statement), what we will find is that “real” discrimination is often dismissed as unimportant or an “overreaction”. This is a recurring theme within discussions about the skeptical community specifically, and society at large more generally.
It cannot be overstated here that from a practical standpoint, the line between “perceived” and “actual” discrimination is almost meaningless. If someone feels discriminated against, but is not “actually” being discriminated against, that person is just as likely to withhold their participation as would be someone whose “discrimi-dar” is more accurate. We are talking about those things that make people more or less likely to participate – in that circumstance, perception is reality (from that person’s point of view).
So we are left with two choices: either we do something or we don’t do something. If we do something, we may not see proportional participation, but I dare say we will see increased participation from creating a less hostile environment, which may have knock-on effects (we’re already seeing growing participation from women in many places, because some people started doing something). If we do nothing (i.e., we continue to demand an impossible standard of proof for ‘proving’ discrimination), then we are likely to see no change. It is unreasonable to expect people to force themselves into environments where they do not feel welcome simply because the people who dominate those environments refuse to make accommodations and dictate the terms of participation.
So it all boils down to one question: do you want to see increased participation from groups that, up until now, have been underrepresented? If the answer is ‘yes’, then changes need to be made, and there are people offering specific suggestions of what those changes might be. If the answer is ‘no’, which is entirely valid, then it’s worthwhile to be honest and say “including these people is less important to me than the effort that would go into making these changes”. Those groups who are underrepresented will hear that message and decide either to refuse to participate altogether, or create their own environments where they can participate separately from yours (which is, so far as I understand it, the point of Atheism+).
I am not familiar with the “accusations” you’re referring to, or with the nature of the fallout that those accusations carry with them. One of the favourite tactics of a portion of the anti-feminist gaggle is to talk about “witch hunts” (a term that is bizarrely and ironically ahistorical). To my knowledge, however, nobody has seriously suggested that a person be legally punished (let alone physically assaulted) for saying or doing discriminatory things. What I have seen, aside from some colourful invective, is that people are usually willing to accept an apology and an offer of reasonable recompense. I highlighted this issue in my letter to Dr. Shermer – in response to a recent example where I had said something discriminatory, I was asked to acknowledge and correct my mistake. That was the beginning and end of it.
What I have never been clear on is what it is that people are so terrified of, that it is worthwhile to view all claims of discrimination as potential threats that must be rigorously scrutinized before anything (including an apology) can be done. The worst thing I have ever seen is that a group of people voluntarily dissociate themselves from someone who has been accused of doing something harmful. In every one of those cases, the accused person responded to the accusation with furious denial and a predictable litany of bullshit countermeasure statements, rather than saying “I understand why my statements/actions have hurt people, and that was not my intention. In the future, I will be more aware of this issue.”
As far as your two questions go, I suppose if I am forced to choose between those two unreasonable alternatives, I would tend to side with option #2. My own personal experience, and the experiences that I have seen and heard relayed from others, and my knowledge of how the selective blindness of outgroup membership (one of the facets of the construct most commonly referred to as “privilege”) makes it difficult to appreciate the perspectives of others, all of these lead me to contend that people are usually fairly reliable judges of when they are being discriminated against. These people usually just want a chance to be heard and listened to, rather than demanding some kind of burdensome punishment for the discriminating party (unless that party has repeatedly refused to hear and listen, in which case things tend to get contentious).
While we may not always recognize it as such, we habitually extend a benefit of the doubt to those like us, and set a higher standard for those not like us. As such, our lens is not objective, and we are currently erring on the side of the majority, perhaps without even recognizing it. Our lens needs to shift. What the fear seems to be is that we will shift the benefit of the doubt too far and let in a horde of frivolous complaints that we will then have to deal with, to calamitous effect. I think that is an unreasonable fear for the reasons I have mentioned above, and even if it were the case, the costs we would have to pay are pretty low. If it were the case that we “overcompensated” in this way, we could always shift the lens back and try a different approach.
Finally, it may be worth noting that when you have a very diverse group of people, you end up with a peer group that can bring a variety of perspectives and experiences to the issue of discrimination. We see often within the psychological literature that groups who can compare the suffering of others to their own suffering are more likely to recognize discrimination against others. By adjusting our behaviour to encourage a wider variety of participation, we may end up with a group that has a sharper barometer for sniffing out the hypothetical bullshit case where discrimination is claimed but has not “actually” happened. That’s just speculation, but it’s worth thinking about.
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