So Much Wrong, Part 1: thunderf00t and 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 piece of wrong:

Now first let me say from a strategically point of view sexual harassment at conferences really is a non-issue (and if reading that has just pushed some buttons, I want you to calmly unplug those emotions and put them in a box, then take a deep breath, relax and read the rest of this reasoned argument)… breathing calmly yet? good!, then we can continue….

…… indeed to a large degree the conference scene is mostly redundant. A large conference is a couple of thousand people. In terms of viewership, a mediocre channel such as mine would pull in several tens of thousands of views for a video. Then of course many of these lectures are repeated from conference to conference, and virtually all of them are available online. Put simply if your primary focus is on the conference scene, then in the internet age, it’s probably misplaced.

Where is the wrong? Well, for starters: Nobody is saying that sexual harassment at conferences is the single most serious problem facing the atheist and skeptical communities. Nobody is even saying that conferences are the single most important gathering place, virtual or physical, for the atheist and skeptical communities. Contrary to what thunderf00t seems to think, it is not our primary focus.

It just happens to be what we’re talking about right now.

The conversation about sexism and misogyny in the atheist/ skeptical communities, and making these communities safer and more welcoming for women? It has been happening for a long time now, and has covered many different arenas, from conferences to local groups to internet communities. This latest conversation is only one part of it. To say, “Well, who cares about conferences anyway” is like hearing a concern expressed about crime rates in Detroit, and saying, “Well, who cares about Detroit? It’s just one city, the population is only about 700,000, and the population of the whole earth is almost seven billion!” Yes, the population of Detroit is about one thousandth of the Earth’s. We can still care about it. And even if the population of atheist/ skeptical conferences were about one thousandth of the population of the whole atheist/ skeptical community, we can still care about it. (I have no idea what those numbers might be, by the way — but a thousandth seems like it might be in the ballpark.)

What’s more, we can see the problems of Detroit as reflecting larger problems in the country and the world. Think globally, act locally, and all that. There are real, ongoing problems of sexism and misogyny in the atheist/ skeptical communities as a whole — and they are not going to be solved overnight with one dramatic gesture. They are going to be solved, or mitigated, one arena at a time.

Now, as it happens, I do think conferences are rather more important than thunderf00t seems to. True, an individual conference is a couple thousand people tops (in fact, that’s probably an over-estimate). But there are LOTS of conferences: large and small, local and regional and national and international. When you add up all the people who go to all these conferences, it’s quite a bit more than a couple thousand. And important things happen at these conferences. Leaders of local groups and student groups go, and bring back ideas they share with their groups. Leaders of organizations get ideas about what the local and student groups are concerned and/or excited about. Reporters go to conferences, and often write news stories that get atheism/ skepticism wider exposure outside the community. People do professional networking in person who might not have met online. People make friendships in person they might not have made if they’d only met online. People get inspired by hearing talks in person that wouldn’t have had the same impact on video. People find out about organizations, speakers, writers, books, videos, blogs they might not have. In-person interactions have a different quality that interactions on the internet. Some people are more comfortable interacting in person than they are interacting online. Conferences are energizing, and that energy carries out into the community at large. And obviously, things happen at conferences that get talked about on the Internet.

And if women don’t feel safe or welcome at conferences, and don’t participate in conferences as much as men do as a result, then that reduces our participation in the community as a whole.

But while that’s important, that’s something of a side point. The main point: This idea that, because some of us are talking about conferences now, it must be our primary concern — as opposed to one particular place where a larger and longer conversation happens to be focusing on right now? It’s a total straw man.

Oh… and if you think we shouldn’t be focusing so much attention on it? Why are you focusing attention on it? If you think we’re paying too much attention to what happens at conferences, throwing gasoline on the flame war is not the way to go.

Comments

  1. says

    There is also no problem with creationists, only a very tiny number are actually trying to change laws, and therefore doing a video series about them is a waste of time and you shouldn’t focus so much attention on it.

  2. says

    Really, gay people make up such a small part of the population. Atheists, too. Why are we SO FOCUSED on them? I mean, if we just stopped talking about anti-atheist and anti-gay bigotry, they’d go away! Simple as that!

  3. says

    Thanks Greta,

    I’m embarrassed for humanity that a post such as yours is even required in 2012. All of this should be obvious.

  4. says

    He certainly seems to think conferences are worthwhile. He attends plenty. I can’t think what the point of this section is except to try to imply that as an Internet dude, he has more credibility than the conference people.

  5. says

    I would add that anyone can watch a video at no cost, other than a few minutes of their time. It proves nothing about their commitment to the atheist movement or their willingness to actually work toward achieving political goals.

    But the people who attend atheist conferences? The people who put in the time, the effort, the money to travel cross-country, or even cross-border, just to meet their like-minded friends and allies in the flesh? Those are the people whose commitment to the atheist movement is real; those are the people who are most likely to work toward achieving our goals; those are the people we need. Dismissing them as irrelevant gets it exactly backwards: those are the people who are most crucial to our success. And if we drive them away, either deliberately or through neglect of their concerns, it’s only ourselves whom we’ll hurt.

  6. lancefinney says

    Personally, I’m really annoyed by the condescension of “You disagree with me? That means you’re just being emotional. Let me explain it to you with reason.”

  7. Greta Christina says

    But the people who attend atheist conferences? The people who put in the time, the effort, the money to travel cross-country, or even cross-border, just to meet their like-minded friends and allies in the flesh? Those are the people whose commitment to the atheist movement is real; those are the people who are most likely to work toward achieving our goals; those are the people we need.

    Adam Lee @ #6: I see your point… but to a great extent, the people who go to atheist conferences are the ones who can afford it. A lot of people are very committed to atheism, but simply can’t afford to go to cons. (I’m one of them: I pretty much can’t afford to go to cons unless I’m speaking and my way is being paid.) And unfortunately, the people who can’t afford to go tend to be the ones who are under-represented in our movement: women, people of color, and people who aren’t college-educated and middle-class.

  8. Tony... therefore God says

    Greta:
    I find it unfortunate that thunderf00t chose to start his blogging here with an incendiary post that dismisses sexual harassment. I’ve never been to a conference, but listening to the women that go, and hearing their stories is more than enough for me to believe that this *is* a problem. Heck, sexual harassment is a problem in society in general, so of course, any community will have to deal with it at some point. For him to deny *reality*, dig his head in the sand and pretend the problem is non-existent, and to dismiss the very real concerns of women frustrates me to no end. So much so, that I don’t believe I’ll read his blog again. Acting as if the concerns of a marginalized group are ‘not that bad’ reeks of privilege, and is demeaning and insulting.

  9. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    This is just deceptive self-rationalization on his part.

    he doesn’t really believe that smaller instances of larger problems – or even small, individual problems should not be addressed. Otherwise he could not possibly have cared that VenomFangX used DMCA to take down his videos and lied in the process.

    DMCA wasn’t even on the top 10 list of concerns for thunderf00t before VFX/PCS used it to take down his videos.

    Even if you want to talk about abuse of the court system in a litigious society, DMCA abuse is only a tiny part of it -and a symptom, not a cause.

    So clearly we can conclude that it would be entirely irrational for TF to ever spend any time on the topic at all – especially when he can always just make other videos, amirite?

    Yeah. Sure TF. You really, really believe that it’s ill advised to address specific instances of problems that don’t affect an entire community. Right.

  10. Jen says

    I am tired of the idea that because there are bars and some folks may be drinking at these events it’s understandable and expected that people ignore social cues and common sense about how to treat one another…with the added bonus of dismissing any claims of harassment with a convenient, “Well you were drinking, are you sure you assessed it right?” on the back end.

  11. says

    More importantly, when he got threats from trolls, he didn’t ignore them, but made a bunch of videos telling us how brave he was to keep making videos even though it could him his life. In at least one case, he quoted-mined another user to make it look like he had gotten a death threat when the reality was a lot dicier. This whole thing about ignoring threats is just for other people.

  12. Dana Hunter says

    Greta, I know this is a tiresome subject, but I hope you don’t tire of taking Thunderf00t’s post apart any time soon.

  13. says

    And unfortunately, the people who can’t afford to go tend to be the ones who are under-represented in our movement: women, people of color, and people who aren’t college-educated and middle-class.

    It’s interesting that you mention this. I am much like you, Greta, I couldn’t go to a conference unless someone helped me go, like the TAM Scholarships from Surly Amy and the Skepchicks. I helped fund the scholarships this year because Surly Amy is one of my favorite bloggers and I love her outlook on the movement.

    It’s disheartening to see people treat this as no big deal. If they truly wanted an inclusive movement they wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss those of us who have no means to participate on a grand scale.

  14. says

    indeed to a large degree the conference scene is mostly redundant. A large conference is a couple of thousand people. In terms of viewership, a mediocre channel such as mine would pull in several tens of thousands of views for a video.

    REALLY, dude?!

    Zip up your fly; your ego is hanging out and no one wants to see it.

  15. adamgordon says

    Greta, just wanted to say that this is an excellent post. I also want to echo #14’s sentiment about you continuing to dissect that post.

  16. Will the Vague says

    Sentiments like that of thunderf00t, even though they are omnipresent, unapologetic, and perpetually self-congratulatory for their imagined originality, leave me so SEETHINGLY angry. Angry still, after years of anger. Angry because sexual harassment is a form of violence I confront every single day of my life from the moment I leave my door. Angry because it is disguised as a non-issue and a form of flattery, the refusal of which I am supposed to feel cruel and guilty for as I pass “brave” and “forthright” men on the street, callously ignoring the favor they’re doing me. Angry because it doesn’t matter an ounce how I dress, behave, present, or identify — sexual harassment is blindly relentless against anyone vaguely feminizable according to the harasser. Angry because I imagined in my callow youth that escaping the confines of religious patriarchy would necessarily usher me into a more egalitarian, attentive, considerate sphere of atheist activism that met frustration and pain with more nuance than the blow of a smug kneejerk.

    If nothing else, I can thank folks like thunderf00t for disabusing me of the notion that insufficient consideration and self-adulation are unique to religious and political ideology, and for putting such dizzying stakes on my being able to believe that anger is not de facto irrationality, but when widely corroborated, EVIDENCE of a systemic problem. I would thank him personally for making me stronger, if his argument were not so blatantly the pedestrian product of privilege’s echo chamber.

    (Also, saw you at SF Pride! Was sitting atop a statue and thus was not able to more visibly cheer, but cheered nonetheless.)

  17. says

    Thunderf00t’s characterization of conferences is simply incorrect and irrelevant. He may simply have little experience.

    The nature of sexual harassment at conferences is not his to define. He’s not the one going to conferences and getting harassed. Again, no experience.

    That’s me talking after I put all my emotions in a box. Later, I’ll take them out and see how that goes.

    Jeesh.

  18. Martha says

    Oh, for the love of Pete, will these guys stop already?! At least for the week or two that it takes you to deal with thunderf00t’s absurd post?

    In the meantime, I shall amuse myself slightly to see if those who agree with him will have to stop accusing all FtBers of bullying.

    Probably not. They haven’t let evidence stop them yet.

  19. LeftSidePositive says

    I’ll add my voice to those who just can’t *wait* to see the rest of what you say dismantling Thunderf00t’s smug, privilege-blind, irrational arguments from assertion-ignorance-strawmen-and-rainbows!!

  20. Erista (aka Eris) says

    Oh, come on now! Clearly what you are talking about is so unimportant that I must spend a not insignificant amount of time and energy telling you why it is unimportant.

    Yes? Yes?

  21. Konradius says

    The thing that I don’t get is:
    Hasn’t he read his argument before anywhere on the web?
    TF’s argument is not new, I myself made it before elsewhere and was rightly put in my place for it.
    How difficult is it to research what you want to say and see what the reactions were the last time someone else said it?
    At the very least he could have learned from that and address the common responses other than “Misogynist!”. Note that actually getting that response is harder than advertised.

    To quote from my own retraction (it is applicable to TF’s post):
    This argument is self-defeating. If you have to make it you prove that it is untrue.

  22. A nym too says

    Greta@9. Exactly. Not to mention those of us who are disabled or chronically ill, or caregivers for someone who is.

    As bad as being a person with disability and chronic illness is, it’s hard for my partner too. Like the vast majority of carers (for PWD, children, elderly relatives) she’s disadvantaged by being female, but also by being socially, financially, physically and mentally impacted by the 24/7 unpaid work of caring for someone.

    We’d love to be two more con-going women, but life gets in the way.

  23. Otranreg says

    After all the blind vitriol I have seen in the comments to the original post, this response is refreshingly calm and level-headed. Better than PZ’s, cheers.

  24. says

    I’ll say again what I said over at Pharyngula:

    Whenever Thunderf00t strays from the subject of creationism he just doesn’t bother to do a bit of research and take a look at the goddamn evidence. This subject has been discussed in detail, over the course of a number of blogpost and a video discussion and I’m sure there are things I’m not even aware of. Reading Thunderf00t’s post, it becomes quite obvious he hasn’t read or watched any of it. It’s like Tfoot and the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ all over again: a pile of stinking vacuous ill-informed crap.

  25. Kilian Hekhuis says

    “the population is only about 700,000, and the population of the whole earth is almost seven billion! Yes, the population of Detroit is about one thousandth of the Earth’s.”

    Except of course, that should be one ten thousandth.

  26. says

    And even if Thunderf00t were right, and the core of the movement is online, surely he can’t be unaware how unwelcoming the YouTube and internet at large can be to women?

  27. pipenta says

    Gah, this makes me pull my hair. I don’t know that the atheist community was ever one big happy family, but we are seeing some major rifting here. There seems to be a patriarchal privilege camp forming up. And it is a wonder to me that they don’t just sign up with one of the existing religions because, really, it would serve their desires better than this atmosphere where we dare to question, where we dare to talk about uncomfortable things, where reality rather than comfortable (for some) fantasy is acknowledged.

    I was a rape crisis advocate back in the seventies and damn, I would have though we would have made more progress by now.

    Let me say again, gah!

  28. says

    At this point, I’m probably going to end up unsubscribing from his channel unless he does some major shaping up in the next few days.

  29. says

    Holy shit – I never got around to reading it yesterday, being busy with various loose ends which I think are now TIED UP thank christ. This is…well, I’ll go with depressing, despite the understatement.

    Greta I echo those who say please continue.

  30. Lyanna says

    I echo it as well!

    What a fool.

    @Eris and @ Jason Thibeault: yes! “This is so unimportant that I will spend lots of time telling you how unimportant it is. Also my pet issue is totes the most important thing ever.”

    It sort of reminds me of Dawkins’s “Dear Muslima” letter. Dawkins’s argument was that Rebecca Watson was being frivolous and should shut up because there are Real Serious Problems out there. Yet Dawkins himself spends a lot of time agitating about the rights of Western atheists who are considerably less oppressed by religion than, say, a gay Muslim in Saudi Arabia.

  31. Who Knows? says

    At this point, I’m probably going to end up unsubscribing from his channel unless he does some major shaping up in the next few days.

    Not much chance of that happening. He’s doubled down.

  32. Lyanna says

    Not to mention, and sorry for the double comment, that Thunderf00t’s tone in these posts is hysterical (SEE WHAT I DID THERE) and aggressive. He comes off as a breathless, yelling, red-faced, drunken harpy.

    The all-caps, the underuse of commas, and the repeated instructions to the reader to “calm down” all make him sound irrational and overheated. I’ve never read/watched him before but now my overwhelming impression of him is of a screaming brat.

  33. Minus says

    FTB is becoming so crowded it is difficult to go through all the sites. Thundefoot has just made the job easier; I can now comfortably ignore him.

  34. A Hermit says

    “The all-caps, the underuse of commas, and the repeated instructions to the reader to “calm down” all make him sound irrational and overheated. I’ve never read/watched him before but now my overwhelming impression of him is of a screaming brat.”

    Yeah, it was disturbingly similar to the stuff we see from garden variety internet creationists…there’s some irony for ya…

  35. says

    At this point, I’m probably going to end up unsubscribing from his channel unless he does some major shaping up in the next few days.

    Not much chance of that happening. He’s doubled down.

    Yeah. Did some reading on the most recent Pharyngula thread’s comments. I’ve unsubscribed.

  36. doubtthat says

    Small correction:

    700,000 people is 1/10,000th of the Earth’s population.

    But yes, you’re right. Clearly this is an issue that Thunderfoot doesn’t care about, which makes me wonder why he thought it was a good idea to start with the subject. It’s one thing if you’re following the discussion and then think, “Hey, here’s something to add now that I’m at FtB.”

    Clearly he was unaware of any context, though it’s not like his basic ideas were in any way sustainable even if, for example, he knew that most of this started when DJ Grothe said something silly.

  37. says

    My suspicion was that he was aware of context and was trying to assert his independence or something. @30. I was talking about Dawah Films. It’s being discussed at PZ’s place.

  38. Psychoticus Rex says

    I’ve seen this kind of response before from communities which are constantly under attack and adopt a bunker-mentality (bunker-mentality: Defensive, Depressed, Antagonistic.). Here is a “new” author to freethoughtblogs.com. This new author may have past history in other fields which may define them as a worthy ally; however, due to your response to others who have been attacking your positions your primary inclination is to assume the new entity is (1) hostile (2) can not contribute positively (3) must be attacked as this is just one more new front of the conflict.

    Please be clear, I’m not attacking you.
    You are human.
    You have human psychology.

    I ask only you recognize that inculcating a certain amount of optimistic delusion, or giving people the benefit of the doubt, will do you, personally and your causes more benefit than harm. An interesting point, some of the most effective persuasive writing is done for the stand point of bending over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to the addressee.

    Good luck with future writing and try not to let your humanity get in the way of your humanity. :)

  39. rg57 says

    pipenta says @ 34:

    “… There seems to be a patriarchal privilege camp forming up. And it is a wonder to me that they don’t just sign up with one of the existing religions …”

    Actually, no. But there is a vicious puritanical camp that has already formed up. And it is a wonder to me that they don’t just sign up with one of the existing religions …

  40. Lenny says

    “It’s just one city, the population is only about 700,000, and the population of the whole earth is almost seven billion!” Yes, the population of Detroit is about one thousandth of the Earth’s.”

    ummmm. multiplying 700,000 x 1000 gets you 7 billion now? add 3 zeroes to that, and see what you get.

    Lenny

  41. crocswsocks says

    Why do we care about Thunderf00t anyway? He’s just one man. One man who should shut the fuck up about social issues and go back to explaining science to the Internet.

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