D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, has a disaster on his hands. It didn’t have to be. There is a sentence he could have said at the very beginning, when folks were talking about the need for good, solid harassment policies at conventions and conferences. He could have said, “JREF takes harassment very seriously, and we will ensure a strong policy is in place to ensure speakers and guests are safe at TAM.” Then all he needed to do was to make sure an excellent policy was prominently posted, complete with reporting and enforcement procedures. Had he done so, two prominent women in the skeptical movement would not have withdrawn from TAM due to issues with his handling of harassment and threats.
This was never about TAM until he chose a different route. He chose to make it all about TAM. Those who already know the sordid history can skip this next bit, unless they wish to see D.J.’s spectacular fuck-up once again.
Observe this Facebook thread, wherein the possibility of a panel at TAM on sexual harassment was raised, and he responded thusly: “Hi Sophie, sounds like an interesting topic. But as you guessed, it is too late to add a panel to this year’s show. (The program is largely set many months out.) Also, I tend to agree with Barb that the topic seems sort of unrelated to JREF’s mission and the focus of TAM, scientific skepticism. Do you aim to debunk junk science in the field of sexual harassment or merely to educate folks and raise their awareness about the important topic?”
Please do take especial note of that “merely.” The hastily-appended “important” doesn’t balance it. “Mere” education and consciousness raising about the harassment and harm women endure has no place in D.J.’s organization.
Downstream in the thread, he says this:
“Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.”
The amount of fail contained herein is unbelievable for the president of any organization, much less the flagship skeptic’s organization. And he piled fail upon fail. When you claim there were “no reports of such harassment,” yet you were the one personally throwing out at least one harasser, and you blame your falling numbers on the women who speak of TAM like it’s some sort of skeptic mecca while they raise funds for more women to attend, you are telling women that for all you may claim you give a shit about them, in reality, you don’t give a shit about them. Neither does the organization you lead.
And when your immediate response to the news that one of your speakers is withdrawing due to threats is, basically, “meh, that’s too bad,” no subsequent response will be adequate to preserve the tattered remains of your organization’s reputation. Not now. Not until after a very long, sustained, and strong commitment to fixing all the shit you fucked up in the first place. Only time will tell whether the damage is too severe for even those measures to work, assuming D.J. and the JREF care enough to try. Nothing I’ve seen from them so far leads me to believe they will make more than a token effort, wrapped in a few pretty words that manage, once again, to blame women for the problems they face.
I’ve seen in many comments threads resulting from Ophelia’s announcement that, due to threats, she would not be attending TAM, variations on the following question: “How are those threats TAM’s fault?”
They are the fault of the person who made said threats, of course. But D.J. created an environment in which such threats could not be reasonably expected to be taken at all seriously by anyone associated with TAM. This is the extent of any policy they have to deal with issues such as this:
Prices are subject to change without notice. Refund policy: 50% of charged amount will be refunded if canceled by June 15, 2012. Audio/Visual Recording for personal use only. We reserve the right to refuse entry to anyone. Disruptive individuals will be asked to leave. Questions? Email [email protected].
There is no harassment policy visible on their site. There is nothing spelling out how harassment will be handled, other than that “disruptive individuals will be asked to leave.” There is nothing explaining how and to whom incidents should be reported, what steps will be taken to ensure the comfort and security of attendees. No zero tolerance emphasized for threats or predation. And after watching D.J.’s demonizing performance over the past few weeks, after hearing nothing but thundering silence from the JREF board, after the viciousness displayed by supporters, after no policy other than those two pathetic sentences has been proffered when people have asked, “Where is TAM’s harassment policy? How will it address the obvious gaps in reporting and management that previous incidents at TAM revealed?” how can any person with two functional brain cells to their name possibly ask what responsibility TAM has for some of its speakers not feeling safe?
Conferences have a responsibility for the safety and security of their attendees. Good conferences take threats extremely seriously. They do not begin by creating an environment in which previous harassment is denied, and hence signaling to harassers that few, if any consequences will be faced. They do not achieve safety and security by creating the impression that victims are on their own, aside from hotel security, if they can even interest security in the situation in the first place. TAM did nothing to make a reasonable person believe they would do a damned thing to protect their guests. Why should their speakers expect more?
Tomorrow, realizing that a mild expression of regret is not the appropriate response to a speaker who is withdrawing because of threats, some JREF officials may decide to belatedly ask what they can do, and offer heightened security. That will be too little, too late. The immediate response to someone reporting that they have been threatened with harm if they attend is to do everything possible to mitigate the hazard and assure the world at large that threats are taken with utmost seriousness. Doing that later, when people have formed the opinion that TAM just doesn’t give a shit about women, gives the impression that it is reputation, not safety, that is foremost in their minds.
And if TAM treats its speakers with this kind of blatant disregard, what should I, as a mere female attendee, expect? I can tell you this: although I know many people who went to previous TAMs and had the best time of their lives, I won’t be going. Not now. Not since virtual carte blanche has been given to those who harass and those who harm. I can see for whom the green light shines. It isn’t shining on people who wish not to be harassed.
When your numbers drop to single digits, D.J., and you go searching for blame, you have only to turn to your mirror.
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