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Jun 01 2012

Rebecca Watson won’t be at TAM

Working on a secret project, so I don’t have terribly much to say today. So I’ll report on the news and throw in a few quick thoughts.

I can’t say I blame Rebecca for deciding not to participate in The Amazing Meeting this year — not because TAM is particularly unsafe for women, but because TAM is not a safe space for women. (Do you get the distinction? It’s really important that you do.)

She quotes DJ Grothe:

I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

DJ was blaming women skeptics for creating an unwelcoming environment. I found that claim astonishing, since I was only aware of women speaking frankly about their own experiences and their own feelings. I couldn’t imagine that DJ would be literally blaming the victim for speaking out. To be sure, I asked him in that thread to give us examples of what he was talking about. To my surprise, this was his response:

Rebecca: Off the top of my head, your quote in USA Today might suggest that the freethought or skeptics movements are unsafe for women. This is from the article:

“I thought it was a safe space,” Watson said of the freethought community. “The biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that it is not a safe space. . . ”

( http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-09-15/atheist-sexism-women/50416454/1 )


As well as throwing other women skeptics under the bus for discussing the greater problem of misogyny that our recent internet conversations over the last year have exposed, with MRAs, anti-feminists, outright misogynists, and privileged-but-clueless mandudes scurrying out from every overturned rock, DJ Grothe is engaging in harmful messaging in conflating those two separate claims about TAM that I mentioned in the first sentence in this post. And I’m really concerned that he’s singled out the WOMEN in the movement who are complaining about this, when male bloggers like PZ Myers, Sasha Pixlee and myself have been harping on about misogynist fuckwits targeting women in the skeptical community for years.

There is an ongoing question about this — where exactly did DJ get the data that he’s using as a rhetorical club to go after the women discussing misogyny and harassment? And there’s a corollary question here: where does he get off saying that there were zero instances of reported harassment when there are many, from those self-same women skeptics, as well as a well-known problem of underreporting is evidently skewing the one metric he’s using to make that assertion? We actually do have some data showing that there’s a skew in harassment to affect women disproportionately, though I’m honestly glad the numbers are as small as they are for either sex.

There’s also the question of whether there is a real problem with harassment in this community. When Rebecca Watson told a humorous story about a guy who probably unintentionally acted creepy, she has thereafter been the recipient of a full year worth of death threats, insults, rape threats, vitriol, gaslighting campaigns, and concerted trolling by even very prominent members of the community. This proves that there’s a problem with harassment even if it doesn’t translate directly off of the internet, and that’s why implementing a strong anti-harassment policy is important. I’m well aware that the internet is pretty much a clearinghouse for the shittiest bits of misogyny and hatred imaginable, and that the likelihood that any of it would translate into real life is probably very low, but considering the volume of horrid misogyny on here, any probability translates into a shit-ton of real-life harassment.

The goal is to make TAM a safe space for women, right? It is imperative that these conventions implement a strong harassment policy, so as to make it clear to everyone that harassing participants will have consequences. Since DJ is evidently more concerned with throwing the women skeptics under the bus to try to save TAM’s face, it’s clear the motivation to actually make it a safe space, to address the concerns these women are bringing forth, is secondary to the PR snowjob he’s trying to pull. Perhaps he should find a new communications director and vet any comments he makes through them from now on, so as not to appear to be unfairly paranoid about women skeptics and skeptical feminists’ motivations.

I don’t blame Rebecca Watson one bit for bowing out. I only hope the remainder of the SGU crew address why she’s not there.

26 comments

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  1. 1
    Jandorian

    When I was young and stupid (high school/college) I used to assume that there wasn’t a reason for me to call myself a feminist, and that there wasn’t room for white males in feminist communities and discussions.

    It was people like Jason and PZ and Greg who showed me that it was not only acceptable but necessary for young white males to get involved in these discussions, and to add our own loud voices to the call for changes when problems manifest.

    DJ has really embarrassed himself here, not that he can see it (yet). What a mess. I already had reservations about going to TAM (pun unintended, but noted) based on other things I had heard/read and all the other good cons available; now I am very unlikely to wish to associate myself with the TAM/JREF/DJ brand unless something changes.

    Good for Rebecca for putting her foot down. I would like it if the SGU gang would address the issue and their opinions on their show. Steve Novella and the SGU are affiliated with the JREF, I believe, so there is a lot of potential awkwardness if they are too critical of DJ/JREF/TAM but also if they are insufficiently supportive of Rebecca. I hope they do the right thing.

  2. 2
    gworroll

    Saying that the problem isn’t as bad as perceived, maybe that’s supportable. But dismissing the idea that there is a problem at all? What?

    He should be announcing beefed up record keeping. Apparently there are people claiming to have reported incidents, that DJ says never happened. Is DJ saying these people are lying about filing reports? Does he not know? Does he have the records to actually support a statement on that?

    Better record keeping, while not a fix in itself, would give those concerned a more accurate view of the problem. Maybe it’s worse than perceived, maybe it’s perceived exactly right, maybe DJ is right and it’s not as bad. No one will know without solid incident tracking.

  3. 3
    Aspectis

    Well, Rebecca can be credited with letting other women know just how dangerous elevators are, and skeptical conferences all have elevators.

  4. 4
    Konradius

    @Aspectis
    Elevators are not a reason women are staying away, you are.

  5. 5
    Drivebyposter

    Well, Rebecca can be credited with letting other women know just how dangerous elevators are, and skeptical conferences all have elevators.

    Do you notice that you say misogynistic crap, or do you not understand that you essentially said “DERP! Wimmin hoo ar talcking abowt sexshooal herassmint ar mayking stuff up. De feer of ellavaytorz iz awl dos stooped femenotzees haz to complane bowt.”

    You’re utterly and completely dismissing/ignoring an entire side of an argument, likely because that argument is being championed by women. Which is part of what their argument is. You are actively proving their point.
    Women:”We have a problem and it is being ignored. What can we do about it?”

    You and your ilk: “YOU’RE SPLITTING ATHEISM AND SKEPTICISM! BLACKLISTS! TALIBAN! YOU’RE MAKING THINGS UP TO MAKE GUYS LOOK BAD SO YOU CAN STEAL OUR SPERM. TOUCHING BOOBIES ISN’T A CRIME! THIS BEHAVIOR IS NORMAL EVERYWHERE ELSE, DEAL WITH IT!”

    I don’t know how to make it any clearer than this. No one on your side has any ability understanding the women’s side. You just keep screeching about how you are somehow being harmed by conferences setting clear and specific (and needed!) guidelines for conduct. If you’re so worried that your behavior will be considered sexual misconduct, why the fuck were/are doing it?

  6. 6
    LykeX

    @Aspectis

    The real problem illustrated by Elevator-gate was not guys hitting on women in elevators (although that can be problematic), but rather the inability of some people to accept a simple correction.
    All Rebecca said was “Guys, don’t do that” and then the internet blew up in a paroxysm of misogyny.

    If guys in general had just accepted the advice and gone, “Oh, ok, I guess I’ll stop doing that”, there’d be no such thing as Elevator-gate.

    Elevator-gate wasn’t caused by Rebecca, or even by the guy who hit on her. It was caused by people like you who can’t accept the idea that maybe sometimes you’ll have to modify your behavior in consideration of other people.

    Quite simply, you’re being childish. If you act like a child, you’ll get spanked like one. Grow up or get used to it.

  7. 7
    lazyHuman

    @aspectis: I like humor, and I love to poke at sacred cows, but seriously, not funny and not productive.

    @drivebyposter: Enough with the straw men. For someone who claims to be a skeptic I’m seeing so much hyperbole and distortion in this discussion, it’s sickening.

    Yes, there are misogynists (and misandrists) in this community, just like there are in EVERY community. It’s unrealistic to expect there wouldn’t be. However it’s inaccurate to say that everyone who doesn’t agree with your opinion doesn’t understand women, I have seen many articulate posts by women espousing a point of view that is much more moderate and nuanced than your overreactions.

    In general if you find yourself using phrases like “You and your ilk…” and “No one your side has any understanding…” that’s when you should edit yourself so you don’t come off seeming like an irrational angry ranter.

    @LykeX: Even Rebecca admits that what you refer to as “…guys in general” DID in fact respond mostly with “Thanks for letting us know.” You’re making the mistake of thinking that a few vocal idiots represent the entire community.

    As for the actual question:

    1) OF COURSE there should be a policy, and I think there actually IS one, it’s also being enforced pretty well, and it’s an issue most of us take seriously.

    2) DJ put his foot in his mouth, I’m pretty sure he meant well, but I don’t really know. After reading the USA Today article he references it’s very hard to see how he could think that Rebecca was trying to say that the community are more misogynistic than the general populace, if anything she was congratulating us on being responsive to the issue.

    3) Rebecca is of course free to cancel her appearance at TAM, but IMHO she is shirking her commitments, I paid good money to see her and the other SGU hosts on stage, maybe even get an opportunity to meet them and shake their hands. Now I am being denied that because she got into a fight with some individual (admittedly a prominent individual.) It seems unprofessional to me, she’s a paid speaker, she agreed to be there, now she’s blowing it off.

  8. 8
    Tom Foss

    She’s not “blowing it off.” If anything, your beef should be with D.J., since he’s the one who picked the fight and blamed Rebecca for his problems, quote-mining her in the process. She was, in D.J.’s parlance, made to feel unwelcome, and I wouldn’t begrudge any speaker’s bowing out in that circumstance. D.J. shirked his responsibility to be, at the very least, a gracious host or professional organizer, and has behaved unprofessionally at every step in this process. Direct your disappointment where it belongs.

  9. 9
    lazyHuman

    @Tom Foss: I am quite capable of being disappointed with both parties in a fight like this. Rebecca has every right to be upset with DJ, but he is not the JREF, and he is not TAM, he’s just an organizer.

    It’s shameful that DJ decided to blame Rebecca for his failure to increase women’s attendance at TAM. Who wouldn’t be upset by that? She quite rightly called him out on it, and this little fight ensued. All very productive and educational. However, it’s still unprofessional of her to cancel a public speaking commitment because she has a disagreement with one of the organizers.

    Publicly calling out people who are behaving badly: GOOD
    Canceling commitments because you have a disagreement with an individual: BAD
    Using your boycott announcement to pimp your own competing conference: TACKY

    It’s nice that YOU don’t begrudge her, but don’t tell me not to, it’s my right to begrudge people who are acting poorly.

  10. 10
    Jason Thibeault

    lazyHuman: No. He blamed Rebecca AND Stephanie Zvan AND Ophelia Benson AND Jen McCreight AND Freethought Blogs AND women making “locker-room talk” and “regretting” their “sexual exploits”.

    He apologized, however, to Rebecca.

    And doubled down on everyone else.

    Her saying she’s not going because she doesn’t feel welcome is, frankly, support for and solidarity with everyone else.

  11. 11
    lazyHuman

    @Jason Thibeault:

    I’m not sure what your point is, does it seem to you that I am defending DJ?

    I have already described his behavior as “shameful.” Rebecca is totally right to be upset, that still doesn’t excuse her for being unprofessional.

  12. 12
    Jason Thibeault

    No, there’s nothing unprofessional about standing up for people you feel were wronged.

  13. 13
    LykeX

    @LazyHuman

    DJ is not just some organizer. He’s the president of JREF. As such, he sets the tone for the entire organization. When he speaks, JREF speaks, especially when he speaks on the circumstances of an event run by JREF.
    I don’t see how it’s unprofessional to withdraw from an event under these circumstances. The head of the organization has said things that are, to put it mildly, fucking idiotic.

    When you agree to speak at an event, it is, in a way, an endorsement of the organization that hosts the event. It’s a stamp of approval on their views. Rebecca does not approve, so she bows out. How exactly is that unprofessional.
    Are you saying that once you’ve agreed to attend an event, you have a responsibility to do so, no matter what might come out about the organization afterwards? Once you’ve agreed, you’re stuck?

    If she showed up and didn’t mention this debacle, it would signal approval of JREF. If she did mention it, it would draw a new wave of criticism and accusations of derailing the conference.

    What do you think would be the appropriate course of action here?

    As for this:

    Even Rebecca admits that what you refer to as “…guys in general” DID in fact respond mostly with “Thanks for letting us know.” You’re making the mistake of thinking that a few vocal idiots represent the entire community.

    I have one word for you: bullshit!
    Bullshit on it being just a “few vocal idiots”, and bullshit on me thinking that they represent the “entire community”. Wrong on both counts. Please don’t try again.

  14. 14
    Pteryxx

    Rebecca has every right to be upset with DJ, but he is not the JREF, and he is not TAM, he’s just an organizer.

    Um, DJ is the PRESIDENT of JREF. Also, he certainly considers himself to be speaking for the JREF and for TAM; just look at his apology in Rebecca’s comment section, signed with the organizations’ websites and full of “pimping” for his own event.

    And “this LITTLE fight” has resulted in, last I heard, TEN separate organizations pledging to adopt and implement anti-harassment policies to address the problem. The real problem, not DJ’s pride. (TAM 2012, so far, is not one of them.)

    Still you call Rebecca “unprofessional” but not DJ? Puh-leeeze. You may have bought a ticket so you could hear her speak, but you paid money to JREF. She doesn’t owe YOU jack. Take it up with JREF if you’ve got a complaint about how DJ treats one of his many speakers; or go get your 50% refund.

  15. 15
    lazyHuman

    @Jason: I agree with your statement, but not with your premise. Maybe you have more information she shared with you personally, but I have no other evidence for her motivation than her blog post, which really doesn’t talk about “standing up for people” or “solidarity”. It mostly talks about her (quite understandable) personal feelings of betrayal at DJ’s dick-ish statements. In fact she even mentions that several of the people who you are claiming she is in solidarity with are going to attend the event.

    @LykeX: Sorry, you’re just wrong on this first point. DJ is just a person, just like Dawkins, and Watson. I am a member of JREF, and he doesn’t speak for me on this issue. If he continues to put his foot in his mouth maybe he won’t hold his position as JREF president for long, time will tell. He is not a dictator, and does not personally set JREF policies, these policies are decided by the JREF board of directors.

    JREF’s mission was and still is “To promote Critical Thinking and Investigate Claims of the Paranormal.” These are the views of the organization, and Rebecca agreed to speak to that crowd, knowing full well the audience she was agreeing to speak to. JREF didn’t suddenly change it’s mission, the makeup of the crowd didn’t suddenly change, the only thing that changed was some stupid statements by a prominent person.

    The appropriate course of action in my opinion would be to show up, and signal her support of the mission of JREF while publicly criticizing DJ and his behavior. Maybe even call on the JREF board to publicly disavow his statements. I would, and I think most people would be on her side in this instance. If some people accuse her of derailing the event, (a definitely possibility given the history of this issue) they will be wrong, and we can argue the issue with them. Right now what her boycott is saying is “the entire organization of JREF is not worth my time.” To use a common idiom, that seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    One thing seems pretty certain, if she doesn’t show up, it will be a lot easier for DJ to sweep this issue under the rug.

    As for your last section, you’re really going to defend your statement “the internet blew up in a paroxysm of misogyny” as not hyperbole?! If so, you’re going to have to come up with a better argument than “wrong.”

    From my reading of the Elevatorgate threads, there were at least as many people supporting her as opposing her. Even among those opposing her, only a small minority were misogynistic, (these are the aforementioned “few vocal idiots”.) As to whether you believe that they represent the entire community, I’m very glad to hear that you don’t, because they certainly don’t represent me.

    And finally in regard to your last sentence and overall aggressive tone, please feel free to not reply to this, but don’t try to tell me what to think or what to post.

  16. 16
    lazyHuman

    @Pteryxx Please point to where I said that I agree with DJ, or that his actions were defensible. I don not, and they are not, but that’s not the point. The point is that Rebecca’s actions were ALSO unprofessional.

    Please everybody try to get over this “agree with me 100% or you agree with the ‘enemy’” mentality. Rebecca Watson is not above reproach, just because I agree with her does not mean I have to support every action she takes.

  17. 17
    John Morales

    [meta]

    lazyHuman:

    Please point to where I said that I agree with DJ, or that his actions were defensible. I don not, and they are not, but that’s not the point. The point is that Rebecca’s actions were ALSO unprofessional.

    lazyHuman, your opinion is quite clear, you have had your say.

    Your basis for this alleged unprofessionalism has been noted, too:

    It seems unprofessional to me.

    Surely you can see how others quite clearly do not share your opinion, having noted yours and its basis, too.

  18. 18
    David Driscoll

    This is a genuine request: could people please tell me where I have gone wrong with this thought process.

    Rebecca says she doesn’t feel safe at conferences (fair enough based on what she has said)
    Dozens of women have contacted the JREF saying that aren’t attending because it isn’t safe (assuming that if it is unsafe for Rebecca and a few others it will be unsafe for the – fair enough, sort of, as rebecca is high profile so unfortunately attracts positive and negative attention, probably not realistic to assume other women can expect the same)
    DJ says numbers are down and says this is in some way due to the reports that Rebecca and other have given (although he states no reports (can we assume he means official reports?) were made to JREF or to authorities. He suggests that this makes women feel unsafe and unwelcome and doesn’t feel that these feelings are warranted ie women are welcome and should feel safe (hence the term misinformation – does anyone really believe that DJ is saying that the reports of people saying they have had bad experiences are not correct)?
    Is the word irresponsible the word that has upset everyone?

    Thanks in advance

  19. 19
    Quilled Mind

    I mentioned this in another thread…
    Maybe I’m missing something but why is the harassment making women want to leave the skeptic scene, when harassment happens everywhere in the world? It’s not particular to this scene. I’m also finding it strange that no one spoke a word of harassment until Rebecca Watson has her “video blog issue” with Dawkins and Meyers last year, which sparked a feminist rebellion for months within the scene.
    TAM is obviously NOT a sexist event, when there are so many incredible women speakers and guests. When I attended last year, everyone was awesome and friendly. On a side note, two women flirted hit on me over the course of the weekend…and I’m not the most attractive cookie in the box, in my opinion. Is it just that we were in Vegas and the moon was just right and all that brain power was sparking the fuse?
    Something just doesn’t add up here…like mass hysteria.

  20. 20
    Jason Thibeault

    Yes, and I link you to the answer you just got there:

    So no one ever spoke of being harassed in the movement before Rebecca, feminists are rebels because the organization is…not feminist?, you’re a male who didn’t notice any sexism so you get to speak for the entire event, everything is perfect because you got sexual attention, and this all just boils down to “hysteria”. Did I summarize that accurately?

    Also, you want to read this post on how to actually catch up if you’re seriously wondering why this is all happening. And this one for a timeline of what happened when.

    I’m going to work on a post that talks about the difference between “an unsafe space”, “a safe space”, and “not a safe space” because there’s a huge gulf of difference between all three, even though two sound like they should be identical.

  21. 21
    Quilled Mind

    Thank you, sir.

  22. 22
    darwinwasright

    “I can’t say I blame Rebecca for deciding not to participate in The Amazing Meeting this year — not because TAM is particularly unsafe for women, but because TAM is not a safe space for women. (Do you get the distinction? It’s really important that you do.)

    She quotes DJ Grothe:

    I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.
    DJ was blaming women skeptics for creating an unwelcoming environment. I found that claim astonishing, since I was only aware of women speaking frankly about their own experiences and their own feelings. I couldn’t imagine that DJ would be literally blaming the victim for speaking out.”

    The sheer lack of logic here is somewhat frightening. You (a) assume that TAM is not a “safe space for women” – I assume proof will be forthcoming for this amazingly broad generalization, and then (b) turn around and attack (without actually retorting, do you see the difference because it is important that you do?) DJ Grothe for arguing that the perception it is not a safe space is an illusory product of a few vocal proponents.

    Your argument is badly circled, assuming your conclusion that it is, in fact, an unsafe space (without ever actually defining that or proving it as defined), and then attack those who assert that your conclusion is in fact, unproven. Then you polarize the burden of proof by requiring Grothe to prove that IS a safe space (although I suspect you and he would have very different definitions of what that means).

    I only just joined FTB out of curiosity. But so far, what I have read strongly suggests that “free thought” means “thought unhinged from the burdens of logic and evidence.”

  23. 23
    Jason Thibeault

    darwinwasright: In fact, I have spent many tens of thousands of words on this topic clarifying and adding nuance and logic and evidence since writing that throwaway line that was effectively a set-up for it. So have others. Swanning into a really old post and seeing that throwaway line and saying “WELP, NO THOUGHT HERE!!!1″ isn’t very conducive to actual conversation. If that’s what you have to bring to the table, our discussions won’t want for your input. But if you’d like to catch up, check out the essay I wrote specifically on that topic: Safe. It explains exactly what the distinction is that I mentioned.

    You could also check out the In Media Res post to find out how to discover someone’s actual arguments without pissing people off unnecessarily, and my harassment campaign timeline to discover many (most) of the important lines of argumentation that have happened in the few weeks after June 1st. Hint: it’s July 23rd now. There are still many weeks missing from that timeline at the end, but you can always check the pingbacks in the comments for people linking to it — they wrote stuff about this too.

    And if you try that “OH, YOU’RE ILLOGICAL WITH A THROWAWAY SENTENCE I DON’T EVEN KNOW I MISINTERPRETED” crap again, don’t be surprised if you’re smacked around for it. Because it’s a shit tactic and a shitty way of actually talking to the human beings on the other end of your text.

  24. 24
    Jason Thibeault

    And in point of fact, DJ’s lot is not to “prove it IS a safe space”. That’s point-missery on a major scale.

  25. 25
    LykeX

    not because TAM is particularly unsafe for women, but because TAM is not a safe space for women. (Do you get the distinction? It’s really important that you do.)

    Doesn’t sound like darwinwasright got it.

    There’s a difference between “not safe” an “unsafe”. A cage with a starving lion is an unsafe place. Any street in America is not safe. Unless you’re claiming that TAM is a remarkably safe place (which is a claim that would require evidence), we’re justified in calling it “not safe”.

    In case you’re one of the people that think that feminism is moot because all problems have been solved: wake the fuck up! Stop talking for five minutes and read instead.
    I recommend this, which goes over some relevant research. Have you ever been in a college classroom? If you have, chances are that you’ve been in the same room as a rapist and never knew it.

    Finally, I’ll point out that nobody was talking about TAM before DJ made his monumental blunder, claiming no instances of harassment at TAM.
    People examined this claim and found that it was more a case of managerial blindness (deliberate or otherwise) than a case of no actual harassment taking place.

    I only just joined FTB out of curiosity. But so far, what I have read strongly suggests that “free thought” means “thought unhinged from the burdens of logic and evidence.”

    Well, the important thing is that you got to speak your mind on a subject you clearly haven’t bothered to look into.

  26. 26
    SallyStrange

    Darwinisright popped up in ancient Pharyngula threads on the same topic to say pretty much the same silly things.

    Hey dude, if you’re trying to get a merit badge for the Slymepit, you’re gonna have to troll harder. Try something more current, and stick around after your drive-by.

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