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Jun 25 2012

Surely We Have Some Real Threat Assessment Experts in This Community

And I’d like to hear from them. Threat assessment isn’t a simple task for the layperson. Since Dr. Blackford decided he’s the world’s expert* and has deemed the communications Ophelia received to be “not threatening,” I got curious as to whether we’ve got folks who do threat assessment for a living. You see, I did quite a bit of (informal) study on forensic psychology when I was younger. And one thing I remember actual threat assessment experts** saying is that threats are context-dependent.

For instance, if someone says they’re going to shoot me in the head, make sure my brains splatter all over the sidewalk, and then pour gasoline over the remains and set fire to them, I might become upset – if, say, that was conveyed to a third party by someone who is obsessed with me. But that graphic explanation of what will happen to me would make me giggle if some friends and I were discussing the best method for handling me should I become a zombie. Context is key, people.

But context isn’t always so crystal-clear. We saw that with the communications Ophelia received. They can be read as either a) a veiled threat to harm, b) a paranoid fan trying to help Ophelia stay safe, c) a nasty mockery, or d) something we haven’t even considered. Yet the context surrounding them is over a year of threats, animosity, and hatred aimed at her and like-minded women. That vitriol had increased to a fever pitch just before she received those emails. I can tell you that in the context of what’s been going on in this community, if I had received those communications from a person unknown to me, and this came on top of doubts I’d already had about my safety and comfort in speaking at a conference, combined with reasonable doubt as to whether the president in charge of said conference would take concerns seriously, I’d not be inclined to read them in the most flattering light. I’d be pricing Kevlar, just in case.

And I wouldn’t be wrong to do so.

Not being an expert in threat assessment, I’d have to go with my own judgment and the advice of people I trust. If some of them advised me that things looked rather hinky, and this confirmed my own feelings on the matter, I’d quite probably decide that keeping my speaking engagement wasn’t worth the risk. And if I believed, at the time, that these were genuinely threatening communications, I’d mention this fact when announcing that I was breaking the engagement.

According to Dr. Blackford, this isn’t what I should do. I have news for Dr. Blackford: his opinion in this matter would be precisely as valuable to me as my cat’s shit. He has not said anything that would give me confidence in his insight into such matters. What he has said on other matters leads me to suspect he may be full of the substance that frequently emerges from the litter box regarding this one.

Dr. Blackford sez, “For what it’s worth, I am an expert (or at least, to be honest, a former expert, in that I have not been in legal practice for over a decade now) on the subject of sexual harassment law and workplace misconduct in general.” Fantastic! I’m dying to know more about this brief phase of his life. Perhaps he can inform us how many incidents of workplace harassment are required before he would advise a company to adopt a harassment policy. Perhaps he would tell us what might happen to, oh, say, a convention that doesn’t take measures to prevent harassment and then gets the shit sued out of it by an attendee who is harassed and/or harmed there. Could it be possible that a harassment policy would not only protect convention attendees, but the organization itself?

Perhaps Dr. Blackford would also be so kind as to opine on just how much evidence is required of a woman to prove she was, in fact, harassed. Because, you see, he sez, “I think we should suspend judgment as to whether there was ever an Elevator Guy or a conversation in a lift in Dublin – we need more evidence as to what, if anything, took place that night…. Always be sceptical when you see claims about someone behaving badly unless you see the events with your own eyes or there is plenty of corroboration and/or testing of the evidence (via cross-examination, for example).” It sounds to me like Dr. Blackford is saying that no woman, ever, should be believed without X number of witnesses. Oh, he tries to wriggle out of that by adding that menz can totes make shit up, too (I paraphrase), but the people he’s currently busy doubting are all women who were harassed. I find his demand for evidence beyond an unreasonable doubt fascinating, as he was the very man claiming that harassment policies which disallow booth babes are “Talibanesque.” You know what else is Talibanesque, Dr. Blackford? Hint: it has to do with the reliability of women as witnesses.

After seeing Dr. Blackford’s comments on the matter, I doubt I’ll be consulting him on harassment issues for any organization I may be responsible for. And I can’t foresee using him for threat assessment in the future, but who knows? Maybe he’s actually brilliant at it. Let’s give him a chance.

Scenario A: A Love Letter

I have received a letter whose author says that the grace of my body thrills him, that my beauty is his starting point for the appreciation of all other beauty, and that he wants to feel my body and share his love with me. Should I be worried?

Scenario B: A Few Worrisome Words

I have received a communication that indicates I will be skinned, peeled, mutilated, and bombed. Should I become concerned?

Most of you already know the answers. The context of this post hints at them. You might even be wise enough to ask for context within the scenarios, because you suspect I’m being tricksy. I shall provide without making you ask.

In Scenario A, I am a 10 year-old girl getting a letter from a middle-aged man***. In Scenario B, I am a writer who has challenged another writer to a writing competition.

Let’s make it harder.

In Scenario A, I am a young woman receiving this communication from a fan.

In Scenario B, I am a blogger receiving this communication from someone who vehemently disagrees with what I said in a recent post.

It gets harder, in those instances. Perhaps not for Dr. Blackford, who would likely tell me that I should be flattered by A and laugh off B, from what I’ve seen of his commentary. But for most of us, it would become more difficult to deny those two things are potential threats. And if we suspect they may be acted upon, if we suspect that the letter writer in Scenario A will come to “share his love” (aka, rape) and the writer in Scenario B is unhinged enough to actually harm us, we will take action to mitigate those threats.

When we receive communications which, given their context, may be reasonably construed as potentially threatening, we are facing Schroedinger’s Threat. We are also facing a gamble, and the stakes are high. The probability of this Schroedinger’s Threat being a genuine one that will be acted upon may be low. But it’s not zero. Any psychiatric nurse Nurse Practitioner can tell you that a threat, whether baldly stated or merely hinted at, must be taken seriously.

And what we do when we assess the possibilities is a cost-benefit analysis in which we decide, for ourselves, whether to risk to our health and lives is worth the gamble. In some instances, we may decide it is. In some, we may decide it isn’t. We make the best choice we have with the information available to us.

In some instances, we may go so far as to hire a threat assessment professional. As Dr. Blackford and his fellow hyper-skeptics seem to lack a certain, shall we say, discernment in such matters, perhaps we should ask if anyone in the community does this sort of thing for a living?

 

* I have chosen Dr. Blackford as my example in this post. Alas, there are plenty of “totes not a threat!” people I could have used instead.

** People like Gavin de Becker and Dr. Park Dietz.

***This scenario was taken from Gavin de Becker’s excellent The Gift of Fear.

 

(Standard reminder for posts on sensitive subjects: First-time comments go automatically to moderation. Due to the vagaries of work and sleep, they may not be released immediately. Swearing and disagreement are fine, but keep it within bounds. Gendered epithets, misogyny, abuse of other commenters, and other misbehavior won’t be tolerated. You might wish to review the cantina’s comment policy before you comment. There are also ground rules for this discussion here.)

66 comments

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  1. 1
    Gnumann+,with no bloody irony at all (just an anti-essentialist feminist with a shotgun)

    Excellent posts.

    It cuts near the bone in a way for me unfortunately. Statements like

    For what it’s worth, I am an expert (or at least, to be honest, a former expert, in that I have not been in legal practice for over a decade now) on the subject of sexual harassment law and workplace misconduct in general.”

    makes me actually ashamed of my law degree, since I can see clearly where it’s coming from (and the t-shirt hangs in the back of the closet).

    Also, one a side note – I got a 404 from the comment rules links (so I’m just trying to be on my best behaviour here and hope that’s enough).

    1. 1.1
      Dana Hunter

      Fixed the link. It always breaks the link. Grr. Thanks for the catch!

  2. 2
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Thank you so much for this Dana!

    To expand on one point: The most outrageous part of Blackford’s “we don’t even know there was an elevator guy” is that he’s baldly stating that Rebecca’s story is so unbelievable that it requires extraordinary evidence. All she said was that a guy made an offensive come-on to her in an elevator. Really? Really? That’s unbelievable Blackford?

    I don’t even know where to go with that. . .it’s insane.

    1. 2.1
      Anthony K

      I don’t even know where to go with that. . .it’s insane.

      What’s almost laughable* about all of this is that of all the claims people in this community swallow whole (religion is generally more harmful than good, psychics and bigfoot-believers need their claims addressed), the idea that women get hit on by men at inappropriate times and places has got to be the least contentious.

      Yet when someone like Harris says we need to pat down everyone who looks like they could conceivably be Muslim before they board a plane, what does the community do? “Let’s hear him out. Maybe there’s something to what he’s saying.”

      *Almost laughable. But a lot closer to not fucking funny in the least.

      1. Darric

        While I agree that this threat assessment person makes some rather idiotic comments I disagree with the following statement.

        “Yet when someone like Harris says we need to pat down everyone who looks like they could conceivably be Muslim before they board a plane, what does the community do? “Let’s hear him out. Maybe there’s something to what he’s saying.””

        When Harris made these comments I personally found very little support for him. The majority of those commenting seemed to be puzzled as to why an intelligent guy was spouting such racist crap.

    2. 2.2
      Jason Thibeault

      Yes — it’s that same damn “hyperskepticism” that isn’t even skeptical, it just demands extraordinary evidence because a woman said it.

      Excellent post, by the way, Dana. Well said.

    3. 2.3
      'Tis Himself

      When I saw Blackford essentially accusing Rebecca Watson of lying about the Elevator Incidnt then I knew he was not someone to be taken seriously.

    4. 2.4
      doubtthat

      I think it’s even weirder than that. Let’s assume Rebecca made the whole thing up, there was no Elevator Guy, she would STILL be correct to suggest, “Guys, don’t do that.”

      EG’s existence is totally irrelevant to the suggestion that we dudes not behave like morons.

      Obviously it makes no sense to create EG, but it’s not like Rebecca claimed EG cured a child of its blindness then told unto her a set of rules spake from the Divine, Himself. The prohibition on creepy behavior in enclosed spaces can be sustained without taking her story as gospel.

      1. starskeptic

        Excellent point…

  3. 3
    Anthony K

    I’m not a threat expert either. Just someone who (thinks he) understands context fairly well.

    Excellent post, Dana.

    But context isn’t always so crystal-clear. We saw that with the communications Ophelia received. They can be read as either a) a veiled threat to harm, b) a paranoid fan trying to help Ophelia stay safe, c) a nasty mockery, or d) something we haven’t even considered. Yet the context surrounding them is over a year of threats, animosity, and hatred aimed at her and like-minded women. That vitriol had increased to a fever pitch just before she received those emails. I can tell you that in the context of what’s been going on in this community, if I had received those communications from a person unknown to me, and this came on top of doubts I’d already had about my safety and comfort in speaking at a conference, combined with reasonable doubt as to whether the president in charge of said conference would take concerns seriously, I’d not be inclined to read them in the most flattering light. I’d be pricing Kevlar, just in case.

    And I wouldn’t be wrong to do so.

    Exactly.

  4. 4
    Ace of Sevens

    The thing is, even if it were scenario b, which currently looks likely, I’d be afraid that my fan might show up to protect me. I’d rather have the groper.

  5. 5
  6. 6
    Inaji

    Excellent post, thank you. I’m no threat assessment expert, however, as someone who has been stalked and threatened in the past, I tend to trust my own judgment on such matters, rather than take the less than stellar advice from privilege blind men. Surprising, eh?

  7. 7
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Josh said it well.

    “I think we should suspend judgment as to whether there was ever an Elevator Guy or a conversation in a lift in Dublin – we need more evidence as to what, if anything, took place that night…. Always be sceptical when you see claims about someone behaving badly unless you see the events with your own eyes or there is plenty of corroboration and/or testing of the evidence (via cross-examination, for example).”

    IIRC (and I might not), Blackford was making some pretty strong claims about what Watson did at the student event based on McGraw’s comments and prior to seeing the video. He was aware that there was a recording of Watson’s talk which would soon be released, but couldn’t be bothered to wait for it to be made public before launching into his accusations, despite several people suggesting that he do so.

  8. 8
    ChristineRose

    I stayed out of Ophelia’s threads because I decided that it had become ugly enough that anything I said would only make it worse. But if I had commented I would have said “Take it to the police. Let them figure it out because they’re police and they are paid to sort through that stuff.”

    I thought the discussion would have been centered on whether the comments were serious–instead it’s centering on whether she overreacted. That’s crazy to me–how can you overreact to threats? The answer seems to be that they were disguised threats and that reasonable people might disagree whether they were intended to be read at face value or as threat. Yeah, so? The correct response is still React strongly and go to the police.

    1. 8.1
      LauraA

      “Take it to the Police” is an interesting standard.

      I’ve had the occasion to take online threats to the police. Do you know what *their* standard for investigation was?

      They asked me if the email made me feel threatened.

      That was the standard that prompted a police investigation of the person doing the threats: did this email make me feel threatened.

      I think it’s clear from Ophelia’s actions that the email made her feel threatened. That standard alone was enough to get the cops in my local jurisdiction to do an investigation and call cops in a jurisdiction 4 states away to go have a talk with the person who made the threat.

      1. gwen

        I’ve taken threats to the police, and their uniform(pun intended) response has been, “have they done anything to you yet?”, “call us when/after they attack you, we can’t do anything until then”. Going to the police is less than useful.

        1. LauraA

          You’re absolutely right, there are times when the police don’t do anything.

          My point, though, was that “does this email make you feel threatened” is, in at least one jurisdiction, the standard for “do we investigate this.”

        2. Jessie

          I reported and had exactly the same response. Friends’ experiences have been similar.

  9. 9
    eric

    “I think we should suspend judgment as to whether there was ever an Elevator Guy or a conversation in a lift in Dublin – we need more evidence as to what, if anything, took place that night

    We are not talking about convicting someone of a crime. We’re talking about adopting a policy at skeptical conventions. A type of policy that a variety of other conventions (ranging from sci-fi to serious academic) have already adopted without too much trouble. Ophelia, Stephanie et al. are suggesting a very low-regret response, not anything unusual or unusually draconian at all.

    Sheesh. You’d think that a harassment lawyer would see the value in an organization having rules about documenting complaints and how the organization responds to those complaints. Instead, this one seems to be arguing that a corporate policy of documenting complaints and their follow-up is tantamount to treating someone as if they are guilty until proven innocent.

  10. 10
    dogeared, spotted and foxed

    “I think we should suspend judgment as to whether there was ever an Elevator Guy or a conversation in a lift in Dublin – we need more evidence as to what, if anything, took place that night…. Always be sceptical when you see claims about someone behaving badly unless you see the events with your own eyes or there is plenty of corroboration and/or testing of the evidence (via cross-examination, for example).”

    Lets apply this brilliant bit of “logic” to the workplace, shall we. Person A is harassed by their boss. They go to HR. HR says “We didn’t see it, nobody else saw it. Under cross-examination you said that Boss asked to see your ‘tits’ but the first time you said ‘breasts’ and that’s just not enough evidence for us.”

    Person B gets harassed and mentions it to person A. Person A says don’t bother going to HR, you’ll get grilled and called a liar. Person C gets harassed but by now everyone knows that HR doesn’t care.

    Then Person D says “Wait a minute, there’s 4 of us now. How about we file a lawsuit!” and they do.

    1. 10.1
      iknklast

      Or how about this: Person A goes to HR, and is told she should be flattered. Case closed. No one gives a damn.

      Person A goes to therapy for 10 years, and eventually resolves the personal issues, and gets a better job. She has to pay for the therapy herself, because no one cared if she was sexually harrassed.

      Oh, and by the way, the person harrassing her didn’t have the ability to hire and fire. So it wasn’t really harrassment anyway, right? Because he couldn’t fire her.

      Person A never reports sexual harrassment again, because her story was told everywhere in the office and she was humiliated for reporting the incident. Maybe because Dr. Blackford worked in the office, I don’t know…

  11. 11
    Worldtraveller

    I’m not a ‘threat assessment expert’. I’m not sure such a person exists.

    I have, in the course of my martial arts experience, taught many ‘self defense for women’ classes. (I was usually the guy in the ‘redman suit’ with the goggles getting beat up….) When it comes to threat assessment, there are a few things that are clear:
    1) The threat level is entirely determined by the person who feels threatened. So what may be a harmless, slightly drunk guy to me could be a very serious potential threat to you or someone else. As you say, it is entirely context dependent, and no two people are going to have the same view.
    1a) Therefore, every report of a potential threat should be taken with the same consideration by the authorities/people in charge. This is something we teach as part of the avoidance/prevention part. All to often, one has to really insist that they feel threatened. Unfortunately, even that isn’t always enough.

    2) We used to teach, as a rule of thumb, that ‘No’, ‘Sorry, not interested’, or similar communication, if said three times and wasn’t being followed should automatically raise red flags. At the very least, one should be wary of the person who ‘wasn’t taking the hint’. The responses after that would vary from shouting ‘NO’ very loudly to eyegouging, depending on the situation.
    2a) The rule of three is just a rule of thumb, sometimes, one is enough to escalate, if the victim feels such a threat.

    3) Everyone is, and should be treated as, their own threat assessment expert. <– This is probably the most important point one could make. It was made, although not is such clear language, I wish I had thought of this phrase back then, to the occasional law enforcement types who took our classes. We did try to emphasize the pro-active and preventative aspect of threat assessment to them more than the 'civilians'.

  12. 12
    Captaintripps

    This post is likely largely rhetorical, but I think needing an expert in threat assessment is bullshit for every episode I’ve read about since the elevator story came about.

    The simple reason is that Rebecca, Ophelia, Jen, PZ, and whomever else are the best judge of what they find threatening. That’s why I thought Cristina’s post was weird, too. She didn’t feel it was harassment; others would. And in that regard they are all right. It’s about the individual and context.

    That part, at any rate, is pretty black and white to me.

  13. 13
    Gregory in Seattle

    If it looks like a threat to the person receiving it, and sounds like a threat, and swims like a threat, it is understandable if she assumes that it’s not a duck.

    Whether it looks like a duck to you is irrelevant.

  14. 14
    Mike

    Wow, you just don’t know from whence the stench of ignorance of male privilege will waft. It seems more and more the only opinions you can trust on this subject are from women (excepting Abbie Smith of course). Even with PZ on the right side it still seems as if the tables are pretty much tilted toward sit down and shut the hell up.

  15. 15
    psanity

    Thank you so much for this very strong and clear statement, Dana.

    I’m glad that Blackford isn’t an expert “on the subject of sexual harassment law and workplace misconduct in general” anymore. It appears that was not his metier. His cv does not enlighten us regarding whether his practice was management or labor oriented; whether he ever published on the subject; what sorts of lawsuits he was involved with, and in what capacity; or whether he actually specialized in sexual harassment, or in workplace misconduct. Perhaps he’s just automatically an expert in everything his legal practice ever slightly bumped into; so many lawyers are. “Various positions in labour relations and professional legal practice (1983-2001)” really doesn’t tell us very much.

    His words do, though. Judging by his words above, he sure sounds like a corporate apologist for harassment. Unless things are/were very different in Australia, a lawyer can make a pretty good living finding clever ways to protect employers from the consequences of their actions or negligence. Making variations of Blackford’s arguments in courtrooms was more common before most workplaces figured out it was a lot cheaper to have anti-harassment policies and enforce them.

    I’m sure JREF is thrilled to have a foreign labor-relations attorney on their side, because it’s so helpful and appropriate for an educational nonprofit, with legal and civic responsibilities to its donors and the public, to be ready to fight tooth and claw against doing the right thing. The right thing, BTW, being standard practice and a total no-brainer.

  16. 16
    Don Quijote

    When I read that e-mail the Ophelia received I thought that the sender was telling her that it didn’t matter what safety measures she might take they had already thought about them and had them covered. Maybe I’ve read too many thrillers but as Gregory in Seattle says, what anybody else thinks is irrelevant.

  17. 17
    A Hermit

    Dana’s just being all reasonable and using logic and facts and stuff…it’s just not fair to do that to folks like Blackford…

  18. 18
    onion girl, OM; social workers do it with paperwork

    You know, I’d been meaning to post something in response to either/both Ingrid’s comments on Ophelia’s blog, or Greta’s post on threats, but it seemed like they both had laid it all out rather clearly and I didn’t want to re-invent the wheel. But maybe it’s not a bad idea to reiterate the point from another perspective, since it’s apparently such a difficult and complex concept to comprehend.

    I’m a licensed social worker whose career has predominantly focused on families and children in general, and on trauma (rape/sexual assault/child abuse including child sexual abuse) in particular. I’ve worked extensively with seriously mentally ill adults and children, substance abuse addicts (primarily those with co-morbidity in mental illness, developmental disabilities, trauma, etc), emotionally disturbed children & adolescents in residential treatment and in-patient settings and both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence.

    Threats are something I have dealt with frequently: threats to myself, threats to my clients, and threats FROM my clients to others. And I can only repeat, with emphasis, what Ingrid stated on Ophelia’s blog: “I can tell you that there is no agreed upon set of reliable criteria by which mental health professionals can predict which patients who threaten harm to others — or suicide — will go on to act on those statements.”

    Just to repeat again: There is no one definitive response or definitive predictive assessment for threats of harm or self-harm. Psychologists, counselors, social workers, doctors, nurses–there is no one definitive response.

    I’ve worked in many agencies, including state agencies, that have specified policies regarding threats. The subject of threats has been covered extensively in academia and continuing education. But neither those policies nor ongoing research has identified the one, fool-proof approach to predict which threats will be acted upon and which will not. There are, certainly, assessments that we make–hotlines have suicide ideation criteria, police & domestic violence providers have lethality assessments–but all of those assessments operate on the assumption that it is *not possible* to *consistently* and *accurately* predict the outcome of a threat.

    We take them all seriously.

    I’ve had death threats by phone where I had to dutifully call the police, and laugh a little with the operator because we both know how unlikely it is to trace and respond to an anonymous phone call. I’ve watched 9 police cars lining a street and 14 cops in a stairwell with tasers ready because a client barricaded himself in his room at a group home, and was threatening to kill himself. And every single one of those cops showed up prepared for Ruby Ridge even when they knew they were facing a pissed off teenager breaking furniture. I’ve had to have an uncomfortable phone call with 911 because another child got angry during a treatment team meeting and called in a bomb threat. But you better believe that three cops showed up ready to go, even after being given the explanation, even though the child had no possible bomb-making materials–because they could not ignore the threat. And I’ve been attacked without any warning, threat or provocation from clients because people are simply unpredictable, and we cannot make the assumption that the danger will come with a warning.

    To repeat what should be FUCKING OBVIOUS to any rational adult:
    Every threat must be assessed with the assumption that the threat is real.

    Context is important. Assessment, based upon previous topic-specific evidence (I’m thinking specifically of lethality assessments in domestic violence, which are based off of years of research and collaboration between the mental health professions and law enforcement), is important. But you cannot ever assume a threat is only a threat.

    That this even needs to be stated (again!) is astounding, and I’m know I’m preaching to the choir, but since apparently people still don’t grasp the concept, I’ll add one more voice to the throng and hope the message gets through.

    1. 18.1
      'Tis Himself

      Thank you for this, Onion Girl.

      As everyone who’s handled firearms knows, one of the things that instructors continually emphasize is “treat every weapon as if it were loaded, even if you’re absolutely positive it isn’t.” I’ve seen a man get shot with an “unloaded” pistol (he survived).

      In a similar vein, as Onion Girl and Nurse Ingrid both said quite strongly, EVERY threat has to believed to be genuine.

    2. 18.2
      NancyNew

      Excellent, indeed, Onion Girl. Two social workers in the family–and they do have their feet-on-the-ground stories, too.

      On a related front, a friend is a guidance counselor in one of the Twin Cities school districts with the extremely high suicide rates for LGTB teens.

      She’s on the front lines doing damage control every time someone in the district suicides. She’ll tell you, too: You do not know, no one knows, there’s no accurate way to tell what will push one person or another over what edge.

    3. 18.3
      Tsu Dho Nimh

      @18 –

      To repeat what should be FUCKING OBVIOUS to any rational adult:
      Every threat must be assessed with the assumption that the threat is real.

      Yes. Until proven otherwise, all guns are loaded, all stray dogs will bite, all horses will kick your brains out and all threats are genuine.

  19. 19
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I’m actually not fussed about him saying that he’s an expert in workplace harassment law. I almost never say, “I’m an expert,” but when I say something “is my field” – which I’ve done on pharyngula a couple of times – I’m sure it means more or less the same thing to most of the readers: I don’t expect to be contradicted by someone more knowledgeable than I, and if I am, I expect that most of my errors will not be central, so you, dear reader, can have a slight bit more confidence about my central point being correct than if this wasn’t my field…but only to the extent that you trust the original description that this is my field.

    And “expert” is relative, just as “boffin” is. There are, apparently, chimpanzee boffins out there. Alex the grey parrot was described in the Times and the tabloids (at least the Sun and the Spectator, anyway) and elsewhere as a boffin. And yet I don’t think there’s a chimpanzee out there who, on his or her own, contributed to human knowledge, technology, or way of life. Alex was a boffin for a parrot.

    On a blog for a non-lawyerly audience, any random labor relations lawyer is going to be “expert” in sexual harassment law compared to the general audience.

    But where does he get off saying he’s an expert in workplace misbehavior/violence? What were his words? “Workplace misconduct in general”. Oh, right. That is more than a bit of a stretch. Knowing unionization voting procedures and, thus, what would constitute a breach of such procedures, is not the same as being an expert on “workplace misconduct in general”. I wonder what was in his brain as he wrote that. F*n arrogant, that was.

  20. 20
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    sigh. HTML fail. Clearly HTML is not my field.

  21. 21
    MadScientist

    Grrr … can I start cursing about philosophers? It reminds me of all those murderers on the news and the folks who’d known the killers: “he was such a nice boy”, “he couldn’t have possibly done that” – there’s the level of Blackford’s expertise in this.

    1. 21.1
      Stacy

      There are some cool philosophers. (Check out Dan Fincke of Camels and Hammers, on this blog network.) Blackford’s just not one of them.

  22. 22
    susan

    I have not been in legal practice for over a decade now

    Well, I just completed my Sexual Harrassment Training at work and one thing we learned was that what is considered sexual harrassment by courts and juries has completely changed in the last 10 years. I’d say “former expert” is correct; Dr. Blackford could use a remedial course.

  23. 23
    Stevarious

    According to Dr. Blackford’s methodology, we should immediately have all cameras removed from all elevators – since we have no evidence that any woman has ever been assaulted (or propositioned inappropriately) in an elevator with no camera.

    Since obviously we can’t take HER word for it.

  24. 24
    Deepak Shetty

    Sigh.
    a. I think Russells problem is that he’s approaching this from a purely legal perspective. (i.e. whats legally sexual harassment is what we should concern ourselves with). This is wrong for obvious reasons – but it doesn’t make him insane or any other invective. You only have to read his other blog entries or books , unrelated to elevatorgate to know this.

    b. Some comments here seem to imply that for e.g. #12 “The simple reason is that Rebecca, Ophelia, Jen, PZ, and whomever else are the best judge of what they find threatening.”

    What they “find” threatening ,yes – but the question would always be whether they were justified or were they reasonable in feeling threatened . (The bullied are the best judge of what they find bullying? By that yardstick , we are all bullies). We have to maintain some degree of objectivity (and for the record I think Ophelia was right to feel threatened)

    1. 24.1
      julian

      I agree for the most part. I just think it important to emphasize how bullying, harassment (sexual or otherwise) can’t be divorced from the person who feels harassed and that guidelines for behavior and anti-harassment policies need to reflect that.

      Which isn’t to say every claim of harassment is legitimate or that every claim of bullying is valid. Just that we can’t get too bogged down on trying to evaluate specific actions because whether they actually are harassment will often shift from person to person and situation to situation.

  25. 25
    Marcus Ranum

    Risk assesment is generally bogus because what you really want is the probability that a threat is real, and that’s almost never known. So the result is a matter of guess-work.

    Suppose you have Mack The Ruger, a mob enforcer with a history of violence, who has been top suspect (but they could never pin it on him) in 4 killings. All the killings were done the same way, with a single shot from a .22 in the back of the head. Mack only works for money. If someone sent me an anonymous email telling me: “your ex-co-workers chipped in and have paid Mack The Ruger to kill you.” I’d use motive: method: opportunity: will: and well, motive: moderate, method: sounds scarily plausible, opportunity: very plausible, will: yeah some of them might have the courage to do a thing like that. In other words, I’d be pretty worried. On a scale of 1 to 10, that’d be a 10.

    You can make pretty good estimates on some of those parameters, though nothing is ever going to be exact. When “mabus” actually showed up in person at a conference, that raised everyone’s estimate of his will to act, because he’d now demonstrated that he was motivated enough to do more than just cut&paste over the internet.

    You’re basically looking for signs that the threat is plausible, that the person making the threat may actually be willing to carry it out, and that it’s gone past the idea stage and into the planning stage. If it’s gone into the action stage then it’s serious. Someone emailing: “I am going to be on the 3:40pm USair to Vegas, see you tomorrow” is more scary than “I have frequent flier miles muahahahahaha!”

    I think a lot of the people who work threat assessment don’t like to talk about it because:
    a) your threat assessment is a recipe for how to scare you, if it’s inverted.
    b) threat assessment and risk assessment are a lot of hand-waving and anyone who really thinks hard about it is embarrassed by how much fudging it all really is.

    (PS – I’ve done risk assessment/threat assessment regarding computer systems, not personal threats. I’d say threats against computer systems are almost always more likely to be carried out than personal threats because of the ease with which such attacks can be done without needing to find guys like Mack The Ruger, who don’t tend to advertise on facebook)

  26. 26
    Marcus Ranum

    Every threat must be assessed with the assumption that the threat is real.

    Exactly!!

    Because, generally, planning to deflect an attack is less costly than trying to defeat the attack some other way, and the cost of mis-estimating the threat’s likelihood is too high.

    If you are wrong and you re-arrange your hotel plans or don’t stick to a published schedule you’re out the cost of a minor hassle if the threat never materializes.* If it does, you’ve potentially saved yourself from a serious situation.

    (* problem here is that the threat might materialize but be deflected and you don’t know. then what?)

  27. 27
    Emptyell

    Dana,

    You are all shades of awesome. Not only have you made some of the most clear headed and insightful posts on this whole TAM thing, but somehow the comment threads are (so far) unpolluted by tone trolling, JAQing off and other derailments. It is such a pleasure to see what it can be like when the thread is not hijacked. (BTW: If I’m coming off as a sycophantic fan boy, well, mea culpa. Every one needs some heros.) Perhaps you just waited long enough to have the advantage of greater perspective (and less invective) and general derailment fatigue. In any case it’s been a pleasure.

    Onion Girl,

    Thanks for sharing your professional insights. They helped me better understand the complex psychology of all this and serves as a great example of what this blogging stuff is good for. People sharing their actual experience rather than spouting opinions as facts. It’s very refreshing.

  28. 28
    jthompson

    From what I can remember of the threat assessment training I had:

    #1:Assume the threat is genuine, which is already mentioned.

    #2: Trust your instincts. If something is bothering you, there’s probably a good reason for it.

    #3: If you’re uncertain, err on the side of caution. Your pride will heal faster than your body.

    Anyone suggesting someone ignore communications that made them uncomfortable, even if the threat is only implied, is the worst threat assessment expert on the planet.

    “We have no idea who put it here and it’s covered in wires and has a cell phone taped to it, but it could be filled with delicious chocolate, so we’d better open it up.” isn’t a survival strategy that works for very long, and generally the people giving shitty advice like that would never take it themselves.

  29. 29
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    Dana:
    Thank you for that post.
    The difference proper context can make is very important. That’s something lost on Mr. Blackford (a *guy* who will most likely never have to deal with the degree of sexual harassment that women face daily).

  30. 30
    Dave

    de Becker’s book = Mandatory read for every person….

    I wish.

  31. 31
    george.w

    Let me preface by saying I’ve read all the comments but I apologize if I got any positions mixed up. There’s a lot going on.

    Sorry, but no; we do not and cannot take every threat seriously. That way lies zero tolerance. That way lies the TSA checking grandma’s makeup and having kids arrested for drawing a picture of a gun on their PeeChee folders. On some level, we have to assess threats.

    Ophelia did assess, based on her lifetime of experience, all of which is very specific to her. She may or may not have been right about the severity of the threat but she had more at stake and a more specific vantage point than Blackford’s observations at a distance.

    “I think we should suspend judgment as to whether there was ever an Elevator Guy or a conversation in a lift in Dublin – we need more evidence as to what, if anything, took place that night…”

    One principle that skeptics often turn to is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The bigger the claim, the more skeptical we should be.

    But Rebecca Watson’s claims about Elevator Guy are not extraordinary, and she didn’t draw any unwarranted conclusions from them. So for purposes of argument we can just accept those minutes as read. It wouldn’t even make a difference if EG were a compilation (and I have no reason to think that). Seriously, who doesn’t know somebody insensitive enough to come on to a woman in an elevator?

    In any case, her point is made completely by the over-the-top response to such an ordinary claim. And by all the rage over the possibility – the thought – that a conference should have a policy on sexual harassment. Crikey, I work for a university that has regular training on that issue and it hasn’t hurt our precious manhood any. It just makes us aware, that’s all.

    Not once in my whole life have I ever worried about sexual assault. I have not had to. Yet even casual observation would notice women being wary and watching their exits, virtually all the time. No one expends that much energy for no reason.

    1. 31.1
      Suido

      Most of your post is ok, but this section is not relevant:

      Sorry, but no; we do not and cannot take every threat seriously. That way lies zero tolerance. That way lies the TSA checking grandma’s makeup and having kids arrested for drawing a picture of a gun on their PeeChee folders. On some level, we have to assess threats.

      We are discussing identified threats – emails, actions and the like. If there were a bomb-threat that referenced grandma’s makeup, then I think the TSA should be checking grandma’s makeup, in that specific instance.

      With regards to the children drawing guns, again, you shouldn’t ignore it completely – it may be innocent, but noting that it has happened is a good starting point, and if there is repetition of drawing guns/violent imagery, then the concern level can be ratcheted up.

      However, this post and most comments have been focussing on actual communication/actions directed at someone that may be considered threatening, which is quite different to the examples you listed in that paragraph.

      1. george.w

        So you disagree with the specifics of assessment; that’s fine, and my point is that those with the most information about a “threat” (and more at stake in whether it is a real threat) have every right to feel as they do. Assessment based on generalities, including the principle “take very threat seriously”, dissolve the focus of response. This is a major point of DeBecker’s “Gift Of Fear”.

        People who have been standing off at the sidelines criticizing Ophelia for opting out seem to be saying “Hey, most of these threats don’t pan out so jump in, the water’s fine!” They have not had her experiences and it isn’t their asses on the line.

        1. Suido

          Assessment based on generalities, including the principle “take very threat seriously”, dissolve the focus of response.

          My point being that in this thread, and others on the subject at FTB, every time I’ve seen the words “take every threat seriously”, it’s been in reference to suicide threats or communications/actions directed at someone, not generalities.

          I’m just trying to clarify that distinction, which is why I thought that paragraph of yours was out of step with the other comments and may confuse the issue for other readers.

          Otherwise, in agreement.

  32. 32
    psanity

    By your request, Dana. Thank you again for your awesome post.

    The Skepticism of Russell Blackford

    In situations safe or septic,
    It’s always best to be a skeptic.
    Confronted by a mugger’s gun,
    I query, “Is that loaded, son?”
    I note, when opening ticking mail
    that such devices often fail.
    Tornado warning? Oh, no fear –
    Statistically, it won’t hit here.

    Threatened by some shady guys?
    Don’t take precautions, analyze.
    Being careful compromises
    Skeptical hypothesise-es
    When climbing on the mountain slopes,
    I’m much too skeptical for ropes.
    Some say this logic’s inside-out;
    I don’t know what they’re on about.

    Experience that millions share?
    I don’t see it; it’s not there.
    Your citations on this matter
    sound to me like anecdata.
    I write fiction; I’m a pro
    and used to be a lawyer so
    always be sure you wait for me
    to tell you what it is you see.

    Skeptical study is my trump;
    I, to conclusions, never jump.
    Let’s get some data on that humming –
    Bus? I never saw it coming.

    1. 32.1
      Dana Hunter

      Squee!

    2. 32.2
      george.w

      Awesome!

    3. 32.3
      Jason Thibeault

      *applause*

    4. 32.4
      mehitabel, never marries, dies with cats

      Most nicely done sir or madam. Will you gratify my curiosity, psanity, and tell me whether you are having a silent p right here in front of not-god and everybody?

      1. psanity

        Ah, mehitabel, you kidder, you. I see there’s a dance in the old dame yet. I’m also a literary allusion — it’s a Pratchettian silent p.

        And I humbly thank everyone for the compliments.

  33. 33
    Dana Hunter

    Thank you, all, for being some of the best commenters in the blogosphere. Once again, we’ve had some very productive discussion going on, excellent points made, disagreements not dissolving into flame wars.

    It’s not due to moderation, either. I’ve denied exactly two comments. When I do that, now and in the future, I’ll post a moderation summary, because while I won’t allow certain behavior in the cantina, I don’t want to pretend those attempts never existed.

    So, today’s moderation report:

    Bob Monkhouse dropped by to say how disappointed he was I hadn’t linked to original sources. As the original sources for Dr. Blackford’s comments were, indeed, linked, and Mr. Monkhouse has demonstrated a propensity for bad behavior in a thread on Rock Beyond Belief, I would just like to say his concern is noted and he is welcome to express it elsewhere.

    NoNeedForAName could not be bothered to read the post, but wished us all to know that we should report threats to the police. This has been mentioned in a great many threads, so while I appreciate that NoNeed felt the need to share what must have seemed like revolutionary insights, I felt no need to derail a good discussion by including them. There was also the silly notion there is nothing short of calling the police which can be done, which is a point that, like the expired equine, has been beaten to an undifferentiated mass elsewhere. When NoNeed has finished reading this post and caught up with the rest of us, I will then reconsider allowing them in to the cantina.

    And that’s it. I’m damned well impressed with the quality of the patronage in this establishment. I’m not sure what I did to deserve you, but I’m glad I did it, and hope to continue doing it in the future. Gracias!

    I’m away to bed as I have to get up at an outrageous hour, so if you’re a first-time commenter tonight, please be patient – I’ll get you out of limbo in the morning!

  34. 34
    MadScientist

    I’d just like to add one more thing about people dismissing threats made against others. Folks who don’t know all of what’s going on are in no position whatsoever to say there is no threat. Unlike Dr. Blackford I’m no expert on security (or at least I’d never claim to be) but years ago I was in a position where folks who were most likely foreign agents were poking around trying to get information about a number of individuals. My response to those folks was always “I cannot help you with your enquiries.” Some people in positions similar to mine did not see any threats and as a result the police believe that some people had been abducted and imprisoned by certain foreign governments. So what did these threats look like? Why, someone would simply walk up and ask “does so-and-so live here, they’re a friend of mine and I’ve been trying to get in touch with them for ages”. The wrong answer, as I said, gets innocent people into a lot of trouble.

    Now it doesn’t have to be foreign agents and other scenarios which may sound concocted; women’s refuges deal with that sort of thing everyday. A woman rings up asking if a friend of theirs is at that refuge and someone says “yes”; unfortunately the female caller is a friend of someone who wants to track down and kill that woman in the refuge. But where’s the threat in someone asking about a friend? That’s why I get hopping mad when someone tells Ophelia (or anyone else for that matter) that “there’s no threat”. Threats are not necessarily obvious to people; unfortunately they’re not even necessarily obvious to the people who are threatened.

  35. 35
    AnonComment

    He does have a (although a too specific) point in that eye-witness testimony is extremely inaccurate and unreliable.

    That said, we unfortunately live in an age where inequality and harassment still are the norm, and we should make sure countermeasures are in place.

    Although I do sometimes wonder on how to keep those countermeasures fair. Situations with multiple unrelated witnesses are more easy to assess for conference staff, but an event with just the person making the complaint, and the person complained about – not sure how you could handle these things.

    You’d think after having been around for millions of years, we’d have arrived at a much better world by now.

    1. 35.1
      Emptyell

      My understanding is that in the case of minor incidents the complaint/report would be taken, assuming it is possible and appropriate a statement would be sought from the other party and the incident recorded in the conference log. It would only be in more egregious cases that more punitive actions would be taken which would presumably require more corroboration and/or repeat offenses.

      Naturally some of the situations will be difficult to handle but many if not most will be fairly clear cut. These are all things that can be handled by a proper policy and reasonable enforcement. To focus solely on the most difficult cases we can imagine is a red herring and is really a task for those responsible for drafting the policy.

      1. Dana Hunter

        I know American Atheists, in particular, are getting formal training by experts in the field. Other conferences may be doing the same. Specific concerns about how each conference will be handling complaints should probably be directed to the organizers – they’re the ones who are implementing and enforcing. Otherwise, what Emptyell said.

      2. AnonComment

        Of course. I was just wondering. Especially since sexual predators are probably more likely to engage their targets in solitary conditions. Although in case of rapists, they are also known to initiate even in more crowded areas and attempt to force someone to a more secluded area.

        Not to mention there are legal prohibitions on keeping track of certain personally identifiable information.

        I also wonder whether there should be a policy of always escalating any (or most?) harassment to the police.

        There is of course a shadow side to all this as well though, with the policy even including any kind of contact. Will it mean people will consciously think before engaging in any kind of interaction (e.g., a tap on the shoulder to say: Excuse me, did you drop this?).

        Sigh, life would be easier and better if we had outgrown this kind of behaviour.

        But ah well, it could be worse. We could be living in Turkey where law dictates that a father will be informed of any gynecological visit his female offspring makes.

        Oh wait, it still is worse then. Sometimes I wonder how our ancestors could leave this fucked up world to us to live in.

  36. 36
    Dana Hunter

    Moderation report: I’m holding Alexander back for the moment. He engaged in quite a bit of “both sides” argument which has been addressed ad nauseum elsewhere, does not seem to have taken Feminism 101, and topped things off with some tone trolling, but I believe he was sincere. I’ve sent him an email, and we’ll see how it goes.

    For anyone who considers posting here without doing their homework: I am serious about this being a place where we can move past the 101 stuff. Also, tone trolling runs you afoul of the comment policy. I won’t be letting those comments through, and I won’t always have the patience to send an email giving you a second chance.

    1. 36.1
      AnonComment

      I am not sure about the volume of these posts, but if it isn’t too large, isn’t it better to just let them through and let the posters comment on their content?

      After all, discourse is the way to truth, and I do feel equality has this truth quality to it.

      We should be able to sway them? (Aside from the actual trolls I guess, but this place – to me – seems to be more likely to attract hate-mongers, whom seem like trolls, but really aren’t. Their thinking actually DID get stuck somewhere around 500BC.)

  37. 37
    Ex-lurker

    I suspect that this post will be unhelpful, but there are a number of publications at http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/simpleSearch.jsp;jsessionid=8C5t0YNVN1Xp2qJwE9YCFQ__.ericsrv005?_pageLabel=ERICSearchResult&_urlType=action&newSearch=true&ERICExtSearch_Related_0=ED446352 which seem to be aimed at threat assessment in multiple (from that search result, largely school-based) contexts. It’s not an area where I can claim any expertise whatsoever, but the conclusions often seem to be something to the effect of, “all threats should be acknowledged and planned against, but those claiming or demonstrating either detailed planning or active preparation should be treated more seriously”.

    … In any case, arguing against a harassment policy seems, to me, to be a bit daft at best, and at worst a bit suspect. I’m sorry to be so blunt. Even assuming that those comments were made in good faith, approximations of “It might not have happened” =/= “It will never happen”, and anyone with sense should have some reasonably well-considered answer to “What will you do if it does happen where you are?”

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