I met Amy Davis Roth, also known as Surly Amy, two years ago at CONvergence 2010 – SkepchickCON 2. Jodi and I were on our honeymoon — yes, we spent our honeymoon at a geek convention. Couldn’t have picked a better venue. Amy had a table in the dealer’s room, selling her ceramic Surly necklaces, and I picked up a green atom necklace so I could wear science iconography where so many others wear their religious iconography. Her partner Surly Johnny was a bad influence on me and I drank too many Buzzed Aldrins. The experience was a bit of a whirlwind one, but I got a sense from everyone working the Skepchick party room that they were passionate, committed, and principled, even when they were doing their damnedest to make sure everyone had a good time.
My already favorable impression of Amy was redoubled when I found out that she’d nearly singlehandedly sent dozens of women to TAM over the years, organizing and running fundraisers and committing resources from her Surlys to that end. She had a great deal of help, but she was almost certainly the lynchpin. And she writes timely and important rallying cries when the movement needs them the most — and that’s what a leader does, even if they don’t necessarily want or accept that mantle.
I met her again at SkepchickCON 4 a month and a half ago, and her enthusiasm and pink Darth Vader costume put her over the top for me — I have a ton of respect for the lady. If we ever disagree, it’ll be on good terms. She’s earned quite a bit of goodwill with me.
So I guess it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that a mainstay of the skepto-atheistic blogosphere, who’s done so much to promote skepticism and atheism, and to foster inclusiveness of women in our communities, is under concerted attack.
I’m guessing this all started when, despite her monumental efforts toward bringing women to TAM who otherwise couldn’t afford it, she was targeted by a number of individuals because she’s a member of Skepchick, and Skepchick as a network had recently pissed off a lot of people because… because… DJ Grothe blamed them and others for TAM’s lower attendance. Yes, Skepchick pissed people off because DJ accused them of something they didn’t do. All because they support harassment policies, and Grothe — and his fans, apparently — think that the demand for harassment policies is an attack on TAM.
Rebecca Watson kinda took offense and withdrew from the conference. But Amy had already committed to going to TAM this year, with the women she’d given grants to. So she went anyway.
Harriet Hall wore a shirt saying she was “not a skepchick” and that she feels “safe and welcome at TAM”; some people wore obvious imitation Surly jewellery saying “you should be embarassed” or “that’s not funny” (referencing something she said about rape jokes and the Angry Skepchick Twitter account once! So clever!); the #TAM2012 live-tweeting hashtag was at some points inundated with more vitriol about Amy and Skepchick and the anti-harassment campaign than it was actual live-tweeting the convention; the Satiristas did a song about how the feminists have a stick up their asses about coffee and elevators; one of the grant recipients proclaimed herself “not a Watsonista” and apparently snubbed Amy and the other grant winners; people loudly and roundly proclaimed that Amy was part of an “axis out to destroy TAM”.
Amy rightly sensed her pariah status and cried in the speaker’s lounge. And that was her next big sin, which later became the focus of a new dozen lies about her.
Hall walked in on Amy crying, and there was a brief confrontation where Amy told Hall how uncomfortable it was to be explicitly targeted as a member of the Skepchick brand. Hall continued to wear the anti-skepchick shirt for three days (eww) despite this confrontation. Then secret harassment police swooped in out of nowhere, because Amy had evidently told someone about the ongoing anti-Amy sentiment at some point who knew the secret harassment police. Said secret police told Amy and her mother that she would be secretly taped and monitored for the rest of the conference, even though Amy herself never reported any of this harassment because it was to that point all stupid bullshit and nobody had yet crossed any lines that merited talking to officials about.
The surveillance was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back, but she says she did not leave primarily because of it. Not primarily because of the t-shirt. Not primarily because of the parody Surlys. Not primarily because of the song. Not primarily because of the accusations of being part of a vast conspiracy. Not primarily because of the anti-Skepchick sentiment on the Twitter hashtag. Not primarily because of the backstabbing by a grant recipient. No, she left because of all of it put together.
Then the trolls came along and reframed the entire thing, saying that Amy was trying to censor the free speech of the t-shirt or of the imitation Surlys. That Amy wanted to run a campaign to keep people from being offensive to her. And that was apparently enough to induce every single cockroach that the skeptical and atheist movements have collected over the years — every single person who’s ever said “elevatorgate? Dude was just flirting! So coffee doesn’t mean coffee?” to pile onto this newest conflagration, to create a new target to be drummed out of the movement. Not Rebecca Watson, but her ally and friend and co-blogger Surly Amy. I mean, doing as much splash damage to the previous targets as possible in the meantime, but certainly the target for the mortars had shifted.
People now ask if it’s immoral to rape a Skepchick because they’re annoying. They call Skepchick and Freethought Blogs ‘feminazi’ and ‘femistasi’ because we point out when people in our movements are horrid to one another and take them to task over it. They tell Amy to self-immolate because there’s no policy against it at TAM (“The Other Atheist” is one of Franc Hoggle / Victor Ivanoff‘s pseudonyms, by the way.)
But Amy weathers those storms. She keeps on plugging away at improving the movement, both through her art and through her activism.
Then the trolls get the bright idea to wreck her art at the same time as going after her personally.
First Thunderf00t posts a copyrighted image of hers in order to make fun of her, and the very idea of harassment policies. Amy tells him he does not have permission to use the image, and asks that he takes it down. He does, but replaces it with an image mocking her.
Then a certain disingenuous and argumentationally-vacuous entity in our community, who claims both to be a leader and to represent the moral high ground of attacking people’s arguments instead of their person, posts a copyrighted image of Amy’s in order to try to cut her down. This entity — henceforth known as Entity (who will go unlinked, so I’m not accused of trying to ruin their reputation in a bullying fashion by pointing out their trollish actions!) — wrote the post to say that Amy is divisive and damaging to the community because she wants conferences to ban the parody jewellery, rather than what she actually suggested, that harassment policies would provide frameworks for complaining about being targeted for harassment like she had been. The entire post was a straw dummy, as is Entity’s modus operandi, but the post stood unopposed, unmentioned and unloved, until Blogger’s automatic DMCA takedown process reverted the post to draft status until the blogger in question could remove the offending image.
So people now have a rhetorical club to beat Amy with. Despite there being no evidence that Amy herself posted the DMCA takedown notice, it’s very probably her because she’s the copyright owner. But the action recommended in the takedown notice was to remove the offending content and the rest could be republished.
Did Entity simply do that and walk away? Of course not. Instead, Entity replaced the image with a sneering ‘shopped Surly that accuses Amy of censorship and trying to censor his entire post, then filed a DMCA counter-claim, which means that the original claimant either takes Entity to court within ten days, or Entity can put back up the copyrighted work. Counterclaims are rare, because most people don’t know about them and don’t know how to tell what’s “fair use” and what isn’t. Counterclaimants are usually advised to do so on advice of a lawyer, because the whole process is nebulous and a total crapshoot, no matter who’s obviously in the right. On the internet, fair use for images is a bit weird, but it’s well possible that Entity could even win such a case, assuming it was even Amy who filed it in the first place. What gets me is the sneering intentionality of the counterclaim — that sense of “I’ll use your work then hurt you for trying to stop me”.
All while this is happening, bullies who hang out on the #FTBullies tag, who spend all day every day on Twitter telling everyone about how horrible Freethought Blogs and Skepchick are, have been commenting on this case, demanding that it go to the Feds, that Amy be tried for perjury if her image wasn’t copyrighted. (Remember that the Berne Convention makes copyright automatic, though America limits statutory damages and lawyers’ fees as available only for registered works. She’s in no risk of being hauled before a Federal court.)
And those same actual bullies are spamming offensive non-Surly jewellery at people who are discussing the works, apparently in a dual attempt at drying up her revenue stream and hurting her personally. And then to top it all off, these exact same people pretend like Amy is just playing victim, and needs a thicker skin. After all of this targeted nonsense. After this obsessive hatred.
Why are these people like this?
Is this an extinction burst, the dying breaths of the most odious parts of our movement as they shrivel and fade away in the sunlight? Well, I suspect it will keep happening for quite some time. The haters will gain traction, there will be give and take, and some big names will rally in support of the people who really, really hate the idea of social justice merging with atheism and skepticism into a larger philosophy of humanism.
The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that while folks are being terrible to Amy for no apparent or rational reason, everyone taking them to task for it would absolutely defend their freedom to say or do those things. Otherwise, there are no actions to take them to task over! Really, pointing out their bad behaviour is a far cry from telling them they’re not allowed to behave badly. And most of the community agrees — the fight for harassment policies at atheist and skeptic conventions is already won.
The holdouts are complaining primarily that we’re impinging on their freedom, but on the contrary — they’re absolutely free to be complete shitheels to people they don’t even know. How else would the rest of us know that these people are unworthy of our time and attention? It’s a self-correcting problem, really — they’ll naturally make themselves unwelcome in all but the most offensiveness-reifying communities, BECAUSE they’ve got the freedom of speech to prove exactly how terrible of human beings they really are.
And good riddance. The sooner they expose their true colors and the community realizes exactly what kinds of people they are, the better.
If you’re sick of this nonsense, if you’d like to support someone who’s supported our community even while the cockroaches targeted her, go buy some of her lovely Surlyramics.
I asked for her permission to include this image. See? That wasn’t so hard.