Good News, Everybody!

Two pieces of good news on the “feminism in atheism/ skepticism” front!

Good News #1: The Center for Inquiry — hosts of this year’s wildly successful Women in Secularism conference — have put a harassment policy/ code of conduct into place! And it’s not jsut for big conferences, either. Their policy will apply to “any educational meeting or gathering organized or sponsored by CFI or its affiliates to which nonemployees are invited.” (CFI president and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay has a blog post explaining their decision — why they institute the policy in the first place, and why they crafted this one as they did. It’s well worth reading.)

Good News #2: A new organization has formed, Secular Woman, specifically devoted to advancing the interests of atheist, humanist and other non-religious women. Among other things, they’re forming a speaker’s bureau; forming a central list of local secular women’s groups; collating links to petition and action centers; setting up a guest blog for new/ intermittent bloggers; and giving conference grants to women who want to attend atheist conferences. (This last one is a really good and important idea — if you’re pondering the question of why women’s conference attendance is lower than men’s, “money” has got to be high on your list.) Membership is just $20 — $10 for students — and is open to people of all genders. (If you have skills to share but are short on cash, they’re also looking for volunteers.) If you want to support women in the secularist movement and promote our visibility, this would be a great way to do it.

And if you want to know why we have to keep talking about all this sexism stuff, or why I have hope in the face of ugly Internet firestorms about sexism? This is why. It works.

Why Are Believers Willfully Ignorant About Atheists?

When believers talk about atheists, they often don’t bother to talk to any first. What are they afraid of?

Did you hear the one about the Anglican minister who said atheists have no reason for grief?

I wish I was joking. I’m not. In a widely- disseminated and discussed opinion piece, Anglican minister Rev. Gavin Dunbar made an interesting and even compelling argument that grief is necessary for love and humanity… and then went on to argue that, unless you believe in God, you have no reason to care whether the people you love live or die, or even to love them in the first place.

Again: I wish I was joking. I quote:

The new atheists proclaim their gospel with the fervour of believers: God is dead, man is free, free from the destructive illusions of religion and morality, of reason and virtue. But then a someone dies, suddenly and cruelly, like the young man known to many in ..[this] parish [in [Eastern Georgia] who was killed in a freakish accident last weekend. And his death casts a pall of grief over his family, his friends, their families, his school, and many others. Yet if he was no more than an arrangement of molecules, a selfish gene struggling to replicate itself, there can be no reason for grief, or for the love that grieves, since these are (we are told) essentially selfish survival mechanisms left over from some earlier stage in hominid evolution. Friendship is just another illusion. But of course we do grieve, even the atheists. And in so grieving, they grieve better than they know (or think they know).

The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves, or why he (rightly) respects the grief of others.

My first reaction… well, to be honest, my first reaction was pretty close to blind rage. [snip] My second reaction was a desire to carefully, painstakingly, as patiently as possible, explain to Dunbar exactly how and why atheists value life and experience grief, and to go through his piece with a fine-toothed comb taking apart every ridiculous myth and piece of misinformed ignorance. [snip]

But after I’d thought about all this for a while, my urges to both blind rage and line-by-line demolition gave way… to a baffled irritation, focusing on one big question:

Couldn’t he have asked us?

Couldn’t Dunbar have gone down to his local atheist organization and asked them, “You know, I don’t get it about atheist grief — if you don’t believe in God or the soul, why do you value life and grieve over death?”

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Are Believers Willfully Ignorant About Atheists? To read more — about the blind rage, the line-by-line demolition, and the big key question of why believers are so willing to blithely speculate on how atheists think and feel and yet so unwilling to just ask us about it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Fashion Friday: Being Appropriately Inappropriate

When I was writing my piece last week on fashion and age and sex, and on trying to use fashion and style to express my sexuality in a way that’s age-appropriate, there’s an important idea that I left out.

It’s the idea of appropriateness vacations. Events where “inappropriate” is exactly what’s appropriate.

When I get dressed in the morning (or the afternoon — hey, I work at home now, I typically don’t get dressed until the afternoon), I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to dress in a way that’s appropriate, both for how I feel and what I’m going to be doing. Is this blouse dressy enough for the restaurant we’re going to? Does this jacket strike the right balance between “authoritative” and “accessible” for the talk I’m giving? I want to look both formal and festive for this holiday party — is this dress right for that? I don’t resent it: I enjoy doing it, it’s my primary hobby, and I get a kick out of it.

But a few times a year, I find events where I feel entirely comfortable wearing whatever the fuck I feel like. I find events where, fashion-wise, all bets are off. I find events where “inappropriate” is not only appropriate, but welcomed and indeed encouraged.

Ingrid and Greta at Dyke March 2011The Dyke March. My friend Jezebel’s Solstice parties. The Perverts Put Out! reading series. A party I threw last year, where I encouraged guests to wear whatever they had in their closet that they loved and looked awesome in, but that was a little too much: too formal, too trashy, too garish, too costumey, too slutty, too ridiculous, too severe, too over-the-top, too something. (A party at which I dearly wish I had taken photos, because my friends came through with flying colors.)

And this keeps my everyday consideration of “what’s appropriate” from feeling constrictive. It keeps me from having a sad about how, now that I’m fifty, I will never ever ever again wear miniskirts and fishnet thigh-highs and combat boots. Or whatever.

Let’s say I’m shopping for clothes, and I find something that is way too short or low-cut or flashy, but that looks TOTALLY FREAKING AWESOME on me. Let’s say I’m thinking, “Damn, I love this, want want want want want — but where on Earth would I ever wear it?” I have my answer. “I can wear this to Jezebel’s party. I can wear this to the Dyke March. I can wear this to Perverts Put Out.”

Greta in damask stockings and steampunk jacketI might not buy it. I might decide, “I already have enough wild slutty things to wear to Jezebel’s party and Perverts Put Out.” The same way I might decide, “I already have enough suit-like things to wear to conferences,” or, “I already have enough little sleeveless dresses.” But knowing that I have options for being my slutty, over-the-top, “I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks of me” self, options where I can do that and not feel ridiculous or desperate or out-of-place… that keeps me from feeling sad about the fact that, most of the time in my everyday life, I’ve decided not to go there.

It’s a little like weight management. A big part of my weight management plan is that, one day a month, I eat whatever the fuck I want, and don’t count calories. If I didn’t do that, I’d get obsessive and deprived and sad about all the things I want to eat and can’t. The difference between thinking, “I will never again in my life have a day when I don’t count calories” and, “I’m counting calories all this week but am totally blowing it off for Kanani’s birthday dinner at Nopa”… that’s a big part of what makes counting calories every day seem do-able. (I realize this doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me.) And while I enjoy my over-the-top food indulgences, they also remind me that I don’t, in fact, want to eat like that all the time, or even most of the time.

Greta in red corset and bowler hatAppropriateness vacations with fashion are like that. They keep me from getting obsessive and deprived and sad about all the things I want to wear and can’t. And they remind me that I don’t, in fact, want to dress like that all the time, or even most of the time.

Just sometimes.

So Much Wrong, Part 5: thunderf00t and Sexual Harassment

Here’s the fifth — and final — part of my series on thunderf00t’s horrible post about sexual harassment.

As some of you may know, videoblogger thunderf00t has recently joined the Freethought Blogs network — and has weighed in on the conversation about sexual harassment at conferences. Saying, essentially and among many other things, that:

*THIS REALLY ISN’T A BIG PROBLEM*

and that:

Put simply, YES talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.

There is so much wrong packed into this one post, I could write an entire novel-length systematically dismantling everything that’s wrong with it. But I don’t have time or energy for that today… and I can’t imagine anyone having it in them to read it anyway. So I’m going to look at one piece of this wrong at a time, until I get bored or otherwise sick of it.

The wrong for today:

2) The VAST majority of people at these conferences are civil, honest, respectable folks. Giving people a list of things they are and are not allowed to do in the bars in the evenings gives the impression that this is not a conference for grown-ups but an expensive and repressive day/night care where your every action will be vigilantly vetted for dis-approval by the conference organizers. Put simply this sort of thing is a killjoy for the civil, honest respectable majority.

Nobody is disputing the fact that most people at conferences are civil, honest, respectable folks. The issue is that a small handful of people can make an event seriously unpleasant and horrible for lots of other people. Especially since harassers often harass more than person. (Even if only five guys at a conference behave obnoxiously and invasively… if each of them behaves this way with ten women, that’s fifty women harassed.)

And I am baffled at this idea that a code of conduct at a conference gives the impression that the attendees are not adults, or that their every action will be vigilantly vetted. I have been to lots of events with codes of conduct, from conferences to concerts to sex parties, and I have never gotten this impression. The impression I have gotten is that:

a) the organizers recognize that most of its attendees are civil, honest, respectable folks… but if the event is big enough and/or open to the public, there’s probably going to be a handful of uncivil, skeezy, irresponsible jerks — so the organizers are letting these jerks know that their behavior won’t be tolerated;

b) the organizers recognize that social expectations vary in different situations, and even civil, honest, respectable folks may not know what’s expected in this particular setting — so the organizers are letting attendees know what the guidelines are here.

Like I said yesterday: The existence of laws and rules, as long as they’re reasonable and fair and fairly enforced, does not make most people feel like they’re being vigilantly vetted by killjoys. (I examined this idea in more detail in yesterday’s post, so I’m not going to repeat it here.)

Now, if particular details of a particular code of conduct seem either too restrictive or too vague, by all means, say so. That’s a conversation that’s worth having. But that is very different from an attack on the very idea of a code of conduct. And it’s very different indeed from an attack on absurdly exaggerated strawman versions of codes of conduct that nobody has adopted or even proposed.

If I want to chew on some womans leg in a bar, I don’t want to have to consult the conference handbook to see if this classes as acceptable behavior!

(Photo of thunderf00t biting a laughing woman’s leg in a bar, with the caption, “The screaming ones always taste better!”)

This has now been said many times by many people, including me. But it’s important, and it warrants repeating:

Do you want to know if this behavior classes as acceptable behavior?

Ask the woman whose leg you’re biting. [Read more…]

Todd Stiefel, and Some Thoughts on Critiquing Codes of Conduct

Todd Stiefel, atheist activist/ writer/ philanthropist, has written a guest post on Friendly Atheist about sexual harassment policies/ codes of conduct, in which he voices some concerns about some of the specific codes of conduct that have been adopted by some atheist/ skeptical conferences.

I don’t have time or energy today to discuss which parts of Stiefel’s post I agree with and which parts I don’t. What I want to say instead right now is this:

This is a conversation I can have.

1) Stiefel makes it clear that he recognizes the reality of sexual harassment at conferences, takes it seriously, and agrees that action needs to be taken.

2) He accepts the basic principle of having some sort of code of conduct at conferences, and makes it clear that he’s critiquing specific details of some of these codes of conduct — not the very idea of having any code of conduct whatsoever.

3) He praises the codes of conduct in general, and makes it clear that he’s suggesting revisions and improvements.

4) When he presents a critique, he clearly explains why he thinks this particular language is problematic.

5) When he presents a critique, he proposes a specific alternative that would fix the problem he’s addressing.

6) He does not spin off into ad hominem attacks on the people raising the issue, accuse them of group-think or silencing dissent, bring up old disagreements with them that are barely relevant (if at all) to the topic at hand, or say that their online handles are stupid. He does not tell victims of harassment that this isn’t really a big problem, demand absurdly high levels of evidence that their harassment really happened, or blame the people raising the issue for making the community look bad.

7) His tone throughout is clear, calm, reasoned, and respectful.

I agree with some of Stiefel’s specific critiques, and disagree with others. But if you have concerns about codes of conduct at atheist/ skeptical conferences, this is an excellent model for how you might voice them. This is a conversation I can have.

Street Art: Monkeys Repairing Bicycle

People seem to like the street art thing, so I’m going to keep doing it. Here are monkeys repairing a bicycle. Or possibly apes repairing a bicycle. I’m not up on my primate physiology.

Not sure what I like so much about this, apart from the obvious features of it being both beautiful and weird. I think I like the somewhat discordant blending of two common elements of San Francisco green/eco culture: the bucolic, woodsy, “back to nature” theme, and the bicycles. Also, it occurs to me that having prehensile feet would be a useful trait in the field of bicycle repair.

This piece is a detail from a large mural on Florida Street. If anyone knows who the artist is, please let me know, so I can credit them properly.

So Much Wrong, Part 4: thunderf00t and Sexual Harassment

Here’s Part 4 of my new series on thunderf00t’s horrible post about sexual harassment.

As some of you may know, videoblogger thunderf00t has recently joined the Freethought Blogs network — and has weighed in on the conversation about sexual harassment at conferences. Saying, essentially and among many other things, that:

*THIS REALLY ISN’T A BIG PROBLEM*

and that:

Put simply, YES talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.

There is so much wrong packed into this one post, I could write an entire novel-length systematically dismantling everything that’s wrong with it. But I don’t have time or energy for that today… and I can’t imagine anyone having it in them to read it anyway. So I’m going to look at one piece of this wrong at a time, until I get bored or otherwise sick of it.

Here’s today’s wrong — and I think this really cuts to the heart of the matter.

*THIS REALLY ISN’T A BIG PROBLEM*

Straight shooter…. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em…. and this is my strategic assessment of the extent of the problem.

… and such problems can of course be dealt with quickly and discretely without spoiling the fun for everyone else (the modus operandi of most nightclubs).

So why the 50% drop in female attendance at TAM?

Well like most things its likely to be a mix of factors, but I can tell you there is a reason why nightclubs typically advertise themselves with a little subtext in the bottom left hand corner saying ‘management reserves the right to refuse admission’ and do not advertise themselves as:

(image with text reading, “PULSAR NIGHTCLUB. SEXUAL HARASSMENT IS ENDEMIC HERE SUCH THAT WE REALLY NEED A POLICY AND TO POLICE IT. see three page legal document at entry stating permitted and non-permitted behavior. now with DANCING!”

There’s a reason why nightclubs don’t advertise themselves like this

Because

1) The level of the warning suggests the issue is far more problematic than it is in reality. I’ve heard talks at such conferences (from prominent activists in the community) that literally suggest that to merely turn up at such talks will get you rape threats etc etc. (let me be honest, repeatedly publicizing rape threats from a troll simply shows a crass lack of personal judgment and an immaturity at dealing with the interwebs, rather than a secular community ridden with men looking to rape women at conferences). Put simply the environment is widely being unrealistically portrayed as more hostile than it actually is. If your goal is to encourage women to attend such events, highlighting troll comments as representative of the conduct at such conferences is both willfully reckless and counterproductive to such a cause. Indeed it’s kind of self evident. If these threats had even the remotest air of credibility, the ONLY appropriate course of action is to simply report the matter to the FBI and take it to its logical conclusion, and then drag their legally beaten carcass around the walls of Troy… you get the idea. (and yeah, it’s what I would have done in the blink of an eye had I found such threats credible).

(image reading on the left, “TALKING ABOUT SEXISM IS NOT THE PROBLEM. SEXISM IS THE PROBLEM.” reading on the right, “SCREAMING FIRE WHEN THERE ISN’T ONE IS NOT THE PROBLEM. FIRES ARE THE PROBLEM.”)

Left ‘Copyrighted’ Amy Roth ‘logic’, Right, Why Amy Roth should spend more time thinking and less worrying about copyright.

-Put simply, YES talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.

Wow. Where to begin.

Let’s start with the idea that having a code of conduct at a conference will make the conference less inviting, and less fun.

The question that immediately leaps to mind is, “Fun for whom?” [Read more…]

Street Art: Alien/ Elf Woman

I’m a bit of a fan of street art. I’m not an expert by any means — I don’t know the names and portfolios and histories of the art and artists, except for a handful of the most famous ones — but I love it. I’m happy to live in a neighborhood and a city with a lot of it (although honestly, the cause and effect probably works the other way — I’ve gotten into street art because I see so much of it). I stop and appreciate it and go “ooh! aah!” when I see it. I’ve been taking a lot of photos of it… and it occurs to me that maybe I should share them with the rest of the class.

So I’m going to start doing that.

Here’s a piece in the Mission district of San Francisco, on either Hampshire or York, I don’t remember. I’ve seen this artist’s work around a lot, and I like it. It almost always has one of these alien/ elf women with the pointy ears. Don’t know what it is about pointy ears. As Lore Sjoberg says on Brunching Shuttlecocks, “Somewhere in the back of the mind of every D&D-playing junior-high-schooler is the equation ‘pointy ears = cool.'” Anyway, I think this piece is beautiful. I love the elegance of the pearls, and the stylized brushstrokes in the background doing that Escher transformation into butterflies. And I have a special soft spot for delicate, elegant art in scruffy industrial settings.

BTW, if anyone knows this artist’s name, please let me know, so I can credit them properly. It looks like there’s a signature in the lower right corner, but I can’t quite make it out. UPDATE: The artist has been identified! It’s Amandalynn. And she has a blog. Thanks to commenter mykell for the ID.

So Much Wrong, Part 3: thunderf00t and Sexual Harassment

Here’s Part 3 of my new series on thunderf00t’s horrible post about sexual harassment.

As some of you may know, videoblogger thunderf00t has recently joined the Freethought Blogs network — and has weighed in on the conversation about sexual harassment at conferences. Saying, essentially and among many other things, that:

*THIS REALLY ISN’T A BIG PROBLEM*

and that:

Put simply, YES talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.

There is so much wrong packed into this one post, I could write an entire novel-length systematically dismantling everything that’s wrong with it. But I don’t have time or energy for that today… and I can’t imagine anyone having it in them to read it anyway. So I’m going to look at one piece of this wrong at a time, until I get bored or otherwise sick of it.

Today’s pieces of wrong:

Now this is not to say that conferences are obsolete (they clearly still have functional roles to play), or that sexual harassment isn’t a bad thing. Sure it exists, I’ve seen it, although it seems to me that such acts overwhelming happen in the bars outside the conference.

So what? What’s your point? At many/ most conferences, hanging out in the bar outside the meeting room where the talks and panels are held, after the talks and panels are over, is a major part of the conference. In fact, at many conferences, after-hours bar time is organized by the conference, and is on the program.

I’ve seen some of this first hand, and was happy to help try to resolve the matter in an appropriate and mature fashion.

So what? What’s your point? If harassment happens at a conference that’s serious enough to warrant unofficial intervention by other conference attendees, doesn’t that indicate that it’s serious enough to warrant official intervention by conference organizers?

If I’m being harassed in a bar at a conference, I don’t want to have to depend on the kindness of strangers. I don’t know whether other folks in the bar are going to support me. If they do, I don’t know whether the folks supporting me are genuine allies, white-knight wannabes, jackalopes spoiling for an excuse for a fight, or what. If they are genuine allies, I don’t know if they have the knowledge or experience or ability to help me handle the situation — and I don’t want to put them in that position anyway. It’s not their job. They’re there to enjoy the conference, too. If I’m being harassed, I want to be able to turn to conference staff or volunteers, who have been trained in how to deal with these kinds of situations, and who have the authority to act. And I want the people attending the conference to know ahead of time that harassment won’t be tolerated.

Also, if this happens often enough that you remember it overwhelmingly happening in the bars… doesn’t that contradict your assertion (dismantled yesterday) that this hardly ever happens, and isn’t an important issue?

My personal estimate would be, of the things that aren’t just people being social clutzs, something like 1 guy in 100-1000 (and maybe the odd girl too!) causes almost all of the problems.

So what? What’s your point? I have no idea if your “statistics I just made up based on my personal experience and my own cognitive biases” bears any relationship with reality. But yes, for the record, I do agree that most people at conferences are generally well-behaved, and incidents of harassment are disproportionately caused by a handful of perpetrators. So what? Don’t we want those perpetrators warned that their behavior isn’t acceptable? Don’t we want them stopped if they do it anyway? Don’t we want them evicted from conferences if they do it egregiously or persistently? What possible difference does that make to the conversation?

My straw poll estimate from half a dozen such meetings is that the ‘harassment’ that goes on in the bars at such meetings is little different from that you would find in practically any other bar in the country.

So what? What’s your point? Nobody is saying that harassment is worse at atheist/ skeptical conferences than it is in the world at large. That point has been discussed and eviscerated ad nauseum in the conversations on this topic. We are saying that harassment is a problem in the world at large… and the world at large has found that having well-publicized codes of conduct at events is a good way to decrease the problem and to manage it when it does happen. (Codes of conduct are standard at most professional and political conferences.) We’re not saying, “Our corner of the world is so much worse than the rest of the world.” We’re saying, “This happens in our corner of the world — and in our corner, we have the power to do something about it.”

Further a female friend of mine who repeatedly attends many such events has informed me that the most recent TAM was the best ever in this fashion.

So what? What’s your point? “My friend’s personal assessment” does not equal “accurate statistics on the frequency of sexual harassment at TAM 9 compared to previous TAMs.” I don’t know if harassment incidents have actually decreased at TAM. If TAM had been keeping records of these incidents, we might have a better idea of whether that’s true. As I said yesterday: This is one of the reasons many people think reporting procedures are a crucial part of a conference’s code of conduct. Organizations need to know how often these incidents happen, so they know how serious a problem it is, and can take appropriate action.

But even assuming that your friend is right, and sexual harassment has gone down at TAM… how does that prove your point? I’ll say again what I said yesterday: LAST YEAR’S TAM HAD A SEXUAL HARASSMENT POLICY IN PLACE, WHICH WAS HIGHLY PUBLICIZED AND DISSEMINATED TO ALL PARTICIPANTS. This isn’t an argument for your position. It’s an argument for mine: namely, that having a well-publicized sexual harassment policy at a conference can play an important part in decreasing how often harassment happens.

And I would also like to point out, once again: The fact that your female friend was even talking about how often harassment happens at conferences in general and at TAM in particular… doesn’t that contradict your assertion that this hardly ever happens, and is a non-issue?

I’m tempted to go on… but the next bit is the really meaty bit, the bit that really cuts to the heart of the matter, and I want to give it its own post. So you’ll have to wait for that until tomorrow.

Fun With Voice Recognition Software

Last night, my voice recognition dingus on my phone got turned on without me knowing it, and tried to text this message to Ingrid:

“Call Brett bringing authority to bring green but it’ll”

So let’s turn it into a game. If God or space aliens were trying to send this message to Ingrid — or to me — what would it mean?