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Jun 28 2012

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.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    This is a conversation I can have.

    Amen.

    It has always bothered me when the raving nincompoops have complained that they are being dismissed for “simply disagreeing with feminists” while not producing any criticism worth mentioning. You CAN disagree, when your disagreement respects basic foundations of decency and respect for everyone as human beings. When your disagreement is based on disrespect for certain groups of people as being lesser, or other groups being entitled to privileged behavior, of course you are going to get slammed for it.

    I don’t agree with everything in every harassment policy I’ve seen, and I’m sure no one else sees all of them as being perfect, but the people worth engaging in discussions share the view that these policies are necessary, and that their flaws don’t make them worse than no policy at all.

  2. 2
    michaeld

    I don’t think I really agree with any of Todd’s points but its definitely a huge step in the right direction for how this conversation should be going.

  3. 3
    Crommunist

    Personally i’d be fine with this list even if #7 was absent

  4. 4
    Greg Laden

    This is a conversation I can have. Too.

    I liked his post and even the points I don’t specifically agree with are still important points.

    Point seven is in fact important. Especailly if you want to sneak up on people. (Who was it who said that first?)

  5. 5
    Flewellyn

    This is a conversation I COULD have…if it wasn’t for the slimepit trolls that immediately swarmed to the comments section on that post of his.

    This is why we can’t have nice things.

  6. 6
    julian

    In general, I think our policies should reflect an assumption that most physical contact and verbal comments are innocent, welcome and friendly. Our policies should not assume guilt and malicious intent.

    I still think this is stupid. The assumption is already there and impossible to get rid of short of expelling everyone for hugging before asking. I don’t get why we need a clause saying “don’t freak out they’re probably just being friendly.”

  7. 7
    John-Henry Beck

    julian @6 Perhaps just to make some people more comfortable? You know, the ones worried about overreaction or that everything may be forbidden.
    I get the impression you don’t consider it a particularly valid concern. But then, apparently there’s a fair few people who don’t think harassment is much of a concern. So like the argument that there’s no downside to having harassment policies if no harassment occurs, is there any down side to the “don’t freak out” kind of clause? (I don’t think of any offhand, barring poor wording, but I’m no expert, so I’m asking.)

  8. 8
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I still think this is stupid. The assumption is already there and impossible to get rid of short of expelling everyone for hugging before asking. I don’t get why we need a clause saying “don’t freak out they’re probably just being friendly.”

    And this is why people think that you are stupid. Why should the victim of an unwanted touch have to bear the burden of that touch PLUS the burden of thinking “don’t freak out they’re probably just being friendly” when it is simpler for the other person to think “maybe they don’t want to be hugged, I should ask first?”

    In both cases, one person has to take the feelings of the other into account… so why shouldn’t it be the person initiating the physical contact?

  9. 9
    Greta Christina

    John-Henry Beck @ #7: The problem with a clause saying “don’t freak out if someone touches you without asking, they’re probably just being friendly” is that harassment victims routinely get dismissed as over-reacting, being hysterical, mis-interpreting an innocent gesture, or otherwise “freaking out” over someone “just being friendly.” That’s a pretty serious downside.

    It’s really not that hard to ask someone you don’t know, “Is it okay if I hug you?” I don’t see why that’s a problem.

  10. 10
    michaeld

    …harassment victims routinely get dismissed as over-reacting, being hysterical, mis-interpreting an innocent gesture, or otherwise “freaking out” over someone “just being friendly.” That’s a pretty serious downside.

    This was pretty much the reason why I disliked Todd’s changes. Between the backlash Rebecca got over elevator gate and Elyse got over that card I’d rather err on offense, unwanted attention and asking before touching. Worse thing I see happening is a few more people who meant well get some warnings at conventions.

    I guess I’ve just lost some of my faith in our community to handle these things well.

  11. 11
    Pteryxx

    Also, anyone who IS fine with being touched without asking isn’t going to be filing complaints whether or not there’s a policy in place, because they have nothing to complain about – happy satisfied people don’t go file complaints. If and when they do have a problem, there’s a policy to handle that.

  12. 12
    Russ

    Thank you Greta and Todd for being excellent models of how people who have some disagreements should get along.

  13. 13
    quietmarc

    There are other reasons to ask before touching beyond harrassment. People with severe arthritis, for example, may not be able to shake hands without pain. I’m sure there are others.

  14. 14
    proxer

    @Greta Christina

    “It’s really not that hard to ask someone you don’t know, “Is it okay if I hug you?” I don’t see why that’s a problem.”

    I think that it’s a problem because we’re substituting an abnormal behavior for an incorrect behavior. Todd actually addresses this specific situation in his post, by highlighting a solution that works within established norms:

    “In the OpenSF policy, they go on to make some important clarifications, such as ‘please do that awkward ‘wanna hug?’ gesture before actually hugging.’”

    My concern, and I think Todd’s concern, is that broad, artificial solutions will produce unintended negative consequences, like conferences where people are constantly hyper-alert to their interactions with others, to the point where they are missing out on new friendships or other relationships when they shouldn’t. I also don’t want any policies which have an underlying message that attendees are incapable of determining whether their behavior is appropriate through established societal norms. Clearly SOME aren’t, and we need to take clear steps to curtail their inappropriate behavior, but in the same way that installing breathalyzers in every car is an overreaching and less-effective response to the issue of drunk driving, broad and over-simplified policies are an overreaching, less-effective response to the issue of sexual harassment.

    If I step back from this whole issue for a minute and think “What is the ideal situation?” What I REALLY want is for the small percentage of people who routinely (or occasionally) cross personal boundaries not to do so. I want the overly-effusive-hugger to be able to recognize a situation where their hug is unwanted. I want the socially-awkward suitor to recognize a cold-shoulder or that *this* situation is inappropriate for a come-on.

    What’s the logical first step toward achieving this goal? Education. Conference policies should first identify established good behaviors before insisting upon an artificial behavior.

  15. 15
    julian

    …broad, artificial solutions will produce unintended negative consequences, like conferences where people are constantly hyper-alert to their interactions with others, to the point where they are missing out on new friendships or other relationships when they shouldn’t.

    This is not a legitimate concern. Mindfulness, even if the hyper vigilant kind, is not going to impede the formation of friendships. How could it? Even in scenarios where someone stammers over every other word careful not to say anything overly offensive there is nothing to suggest there won’t be a relationship forming. There is still another person (the one who hasn’t stammered) involved and they can easily and readily signal their own comfort or break the ice.

    And besides, so what? A lot of things keep us from forming friendships. Time of day, hour of arrival, if we’ve had our morning cigarette or cup of coffee. Why should this be given special consideration?

    but in the same way that installing breathalyzers in every car is an overreaching and less-effective response to the issue of drunk driving, broad and over-simplified policies are an overreaching, less-effective response to the issue of sexual harassment.

    But “cracking down” on harassment isn’t the only purpose of an anti-harassment policy. (It arguably isn’t even the most important.) Unlike with drunk driving or speeding, harassment is done to another person. It’s that person (the harassed) anti-harassment policies are there to protect and embolden. (And I do mean protect. Without something they can point to and say “they violated xyz” they would be very easy to simply dismiss or blow off.)

    Conference policies should first identify established good behaviors before insisting upon an artificial behavior.

    No.

    Conference policies should first identify potentially inappropriate behavior in order to better aid and help the people being or who have been harassed.

  16. 16
    proxer

    Julian

    This is not a legitimate concern. Mindfulness, even if the hyper vigilant kind, is not going to impede the formation of friendships. How could it?

    This is a bit of a straw-man: I’m criticizing policies that advocate specific behaviors, such as verbalizing every request for interaction. I’m not criticizing mindfulness. In fact, I believe that I’m advocating mindfulness in the creation of such policies.

    Hyper-anything, however, can clearly impede normal social interaction. Social connections are one of the primary purposes of conferences, so if we have an array of solutions, lets use those that protect conference-goers AND promote as much social interaction as possible.

    You make a good point about the utility of my analogy, though I believe that victims of drunk driving might feel safer knowing that such enforcement was in place.

    You make another straw-man, however, when you imply that I’m arguing that there shouldn’t be policies:

    Without something they can point to and say “they violated xyz” they would be very easy to simply dismiss or blow off

    My last paragraph wasn’t very clear. Please let me try again:

    Conference policies should identify inappropriate behavior: “Don’t assume that people are OK with a hug.” and insist on better behaviors: “Please do that awkward ‘wanna hug?’ gesture before actually hugging”.

    What I’m trying to advocate is that the policy guidelines be nuanced and specific, and that, where possible, we use ‘better behaviors’ that already fall within the social norms.

  17. 17
    julian

    I was not trying to imply you were against conferences having an anti-harassment policy, proxer. Forgive me for not being clearer. My objection was to what you had outlined as the goal of anti-harassment policies. Namely the education (rehabilitation) of people who engage in harassment. While I don’t disagree that’s important, I don’t agree a conference’s rules and standards is the place for it.

  18. 18
    proxer

    julian, just by having a policy we’ve already put ourselves in the business of educating “people who engage in harassment.” In fact, we’ve put ourselves in the business of educating everybody at the conference.

    What’s your understanding of the purpose of a sexual harassment policy? I think it breaks down something like this:

    1) Alert people to the potential for harassment, and clearly outline what constitutes harassment (and what doesn’t)
    2) Announce that harassment is not tolerated
    3) Explain the procedure for reporting harassment and the consequences for perpetrators
    4) Establish rules of behavior that promote the safety and comfort of all

    What I’m talking about is #4. Society already has some established rules of behavior that are both clear and unobtrusive; if we’re going to recommend rules of behavior to attendees, then pre-established, unobtrusive rules are preferable to new, artificial rules.

  19. 19
    DysgraphicProgrammer

    Greta Christina @#9 “It’s really not that hard to ask someone you don’t know, “Is it okay if I hug you?” I don’t see why that’s a problem.”

    Because no one asks out load in the real world. And no one will actually sit down and read the policy before attending. I never do. I have never read the Harassment policy at work. I apply a “Reasonable non-jerk” standard to my interactions, and things work just fine. Any policy should not differ greatly from “Reasonable non-jerk”, except where it draws a brighter line through the grey areas.

  20. 20
    Dunc

    @19: Actually, in many situations – especially those with lots of people who don’t already know each other getting seriously funky – people do ask out loud, all the time. I was pretty big in the club / rave scene back in the 90s – underground clubs, illegal raves, everybody completely nutted on illegal drugs, lots of sexy physical contact between complete strangers, people having crazed drug-fuelled sex in the toilets, and more – and even (perhaps especially) in that context, touching someone without establishing consent first was a huge no-no, and an explicit verbal question was one of the most common means of establishing that consent (although not the only means – there was quite a lot of body language going on as well). If people can manage it whilst half-naked, sweaty, and incredibly high on illegal drugs, people can manage it anywhere. Of course, the key thing about that culture was that everybody was really invested in everybody having a good time… (Well, that and the fact that getting marked as an asshole would get you “dealt with”, and nobody was going to call the police…)

    Explicit requests for consent are also absolutely de rigueur in pretty much every sex, bondage, gay, or fetish club scene. It seems like it’s just up-tight straights who have a hard time negotiating this stuff… (Joke.)

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