If there’s a small problem with one part of a generally good rule or law or policy, is it best to modify that part of the rule/ law/ policy… or to scrap the entire thing? Or, indeed, to scrap the entire notion of rules and laws and policies?
There’s been some recent conversation about sexual harassment policies/ codes of conduct at atheist/ skeptical conferences. (Yes, still. This is still a thing. There are still people insisting that having rules at conferences will ruin the fun for everyone. Seriously.) In particular, there’s been conversation about the harassment policy at the recent SkepTech conference, which read, in part:
Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.
There’s been conversation about the fact that there was a panel at SkepTech specifically about sex (“Sex in Cyberspace; Porn, Okcupid and the Internet”), a panel at which sex was obviously discussed, and at which there was obviously sexual language. And there’s been conversation about whether the existence of this panel was in violation of the harassment policy.
Here’s the thing.
I actually think the part of the SkepTech harassment policy/ code of conduct being discussed was somewhat unclear, and needed some adjustment. I think it would have been better and clearer if, instead, the policy had read something like this:
Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any official conference venue, including talks/ panels/ presentations, except when directly relevant to the topic of the talk/ panel/ presentation.
That was the obvious intent, and it seems to have been taken as such by everyone at the conference. But yes, I think it would have been better if this intent had been spelled out.
So again, here’s my question: If there’s a small problem with one part of a generally good rule or law or policy, is it best to modify that part of the rule/ law/ policy… or to scrap the entire thing? Or, indeed, to scrap the entire notion of rules and laws and policies at conference — of any kind, at all?
Let’s make an analogy. Let’s say that a city or county or country had laws against assault, and the section of the legal code banning assault basically said, “It’s against the law to hit people.” (Yes, I know, harassment policies/ codes of conduct at conferences aren’t laws, and shouldn’t be laws. This is an analogy.) Let’s say that the section of the legal code banning assault didn’t make a clearly specified exception for hitting people in self-defense, hitting people in defense of someone else who’s in immediate danger, or hitting people in consensual situations such as contact sports and consensual sadomasochism.
If someone responded to this by saying, “Well, this part of the legal code obviously doesn’t make sense — therefore, let’s scrap the whole thing. In fact, let’s scrap the entire idea of having laws at all. Having laws is infantilizing and insulting: it insults the morality and integrity and intelligence of everyone in this city/ county/ country, by treating everyone as potential criminals. Also, this part of the law isn’t always enforced consistently — and that obviously undermines the very idea of having a law. Any law, not just this one. And besides, the law can’t be written perfectly, some people will maliciously game the law and find loopholes in it — so again, the entire concept of having laws is bankrupt, and should be abandoned.”… would you consider that a reasonable response?
Or instead, would the reasonable response be to say, “Well, this part of the legal code obviously doesn’t make sense, and can’t be enforced consistently as written — so let’s revise it so it makes sense”? Would the reasonable response be to add in a section making it clear that self-defense, defense of others, and consensual situations are exceptions to the laws against assault?
I have no problems with people critiquing the specifics of harassment policies and codes of conduct at atheist/ skeptical conferences. These policies and codes are relatively new to atheist/ skeptical conferences — it’s actually kind of embarrassing just how new they are, given how standard it is for conferences in every other field to these policies — and they are therefore works in progress. (To give a different example: Many conferences have had policies banning offensive comments related to religion — written in language which, strictly interpreted, would ban 80% of the content at an atheist conference. So some conferences have been revising their policies, making it clear that people of all religious beliefs are welcome at the conference, and hostile behavior towards people based on their religious affiliation is not acceptable… but that criticism of religious ideas is obviously fair game.) These policies are embarrassingly new, they’re works in progress, and some of them could use refining.
So yeah. If people have good-faith critiques of the specifics of conference harassment policies/ codes of conduct, I think most conference organizers would want to hear them.
But if critiques of harassment policies/ codes of conduct are steeped in a persistent rejection of the very idea of conferences having any policy or code whatsoever — if they’re steeped in the contemptuous trivialization and dismissal of the very real problem of sexual and other harassment at conferences, and in the idea that this problem can just be ignored — I don’t think we need to take them seriously.