Pick up what phone?

Secular Woman also has a response to “An Open Letter to the Secular Community.”

Today, the leaders of several prominent secular organizations published a document titled “An Open Letter to the Secular Community.” Our name is not attached, and our members may be wondering why Secular Woman declined to endorse this document. As a secular organization, our mission is to amplify the voice, presence and influence of non-religious women. We recognize that part of our mission takes place in online communities. Although promoting better online communication is a worthy goal, we reject the current statement’s conception of civil discourse because we feel that it gives equal voice to the sexist ideas and beliefs that have been perpetuated as differing “interpretations” of feminism.

So let’s take a look at the open letter.

There’s a section for bullet points saying how to do things better.

• Go offline before going online: pick up the phone.
When you hear that an organization or member of our community is doing something that you think is wrong or bad for the community, call and talk with them, find out what they are actually doing and why they are doing it.  If you don’t have a phone number, send a private email and arrange a time to talk.  So much of the time there’s more to the story, and talking to another person on the other side of the issue can help us more fully understand the situation.  Plus, a phone call makes it easier for people who are making mistakes to change course, because they aren’t on the defensive as they would be after being called out publicly.

I wonder why they say when you “hear that”…Could it be in order to create the impression that hearsay and personal conversation are the only two sources of information? Often we know perfectly well that “an organization or member of our community is doing something that you think is wrong or bad” because it was done in writing, in a public place, and you have read the writing.

So that’s the first thing. It’s not alway gossip; often it’s in writing.

Second thing – if it is in writing, why should we “pick up the phone”? Not to mention the fact that we don’t all know each other personally. If we see a banker or a CEO “doing something that you think is wrong or bad” we don’t “pick up the phone”; we blog or tweet or set up a petition.

This is insider talk, boss talk, top down talk – “heads” talk. “We always have our reasons, little people, so if we do something you don’t like, be sure it’s for a reason, and call us or email us to arrange a chat but don’t ever go public with it, because We know what we’re doing and you are nobody in particular.”

On the other hand – there is this:

Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues has suffered from the same problems that plague online discussion in general—although arguably to a greater extent.  Some blogs and comments actually exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. Hatred has no place in our movement. We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.

So that’s a start.

Update: Rebecca has a post. Dana has a post.



  1. Ulysses says

    If someone I don’t know calls me up to complain about something I’ve said or done, my first two questions are: Who are you and why should I pay any attention to your complaint?

  2. Jackie, Ms. Paper if ya nasty says

    The problem isn’t tone and a need for greater civility. The problem is rampant misogyny and ongoing harassment.

    What a bunch of BS.

  3. says

    So I expect we’ll all be getting personal phone numbers for the signatories and other supporting atheists so we can call them up should the need arise?

  4. Jackie, Ms. Paper if ya nasty says

    As a secular feminist organization committed to understanding and exposing societal constructs that contribute to the inequality of women and other oppressed groups, we have no desire to listen to, respect, or continuously debunk overtly sexist viewpoints.


  5. Jackie, Ms. Paper if ya nasty says

    This “pick up the phone” crap, has so many shades of the Adria Richards situation. Apparently when people are being sexist in public, it is still necessary to call them on it quietly, politely and in private.

    How ’bout No?

  6. fastlane says

    Don’t be a sexist in public places where lots of people will see (or read) your actions, and you probably won’t be called on it in public…..

    Actions –> Consequences.

    Why does this concept seem so difficult for so many fucking people?

  7. sarahmoglia says

    Not to mention, many of the worst offenders are anonymous. How, exactly, are we supposed to call them?

  8. carlie says

    Plus, particularly when it’s done in public, contacting that person privately does NOT achieve the desired objective. It’s not about trying to deeply understand why that person did something sexist/racist/generally stupid, it’s about trying to make that public space we’re all in less hostile to people not in the dominant group. If someone blurts out sexist stuff in public, and then someone else contacts them in private about it, their statements were left out there in the public eye without any indication that such things are frowned on and not what everyone else there wants the space to be. It’s not just the person who did it who needs to see the message that those things are not tolerated, it’s the entire community who needs to see it. And contacting them privately does none of that.

  9. says

    I’ve rarely gone for that “pick up the phone” crap. What are we supposed to say? “Hey, that was a bad thing you said, could you fix it?” Because we know exactly what will happen: they will promise not to do it ever again, and let it quietly die. And it will fester.

    I have a specific example in mind: Paula Kirby, in Dublin. She gave a talk in which she basically said, “I’ve never been harassed and my sex has never interfered with my career, so I don’t see what the big deal is.” A couple of us had a friendly and private conversation afterwards, in which we respectfully explained that her experience does not rebut the experiences of other women. And she was cheerful and agreeable and we all parted ways good friends, and I never wrote anything about her talk.

    And then…bleeargh, feminazis and femistasi.

    So when I see this kind of advice:

    So much of the time there’s more to the story, and talking to another person on the other side of the issue can help us more fully understand the situation. Plus, a phone call makes it easier for people who are making mistakes to change course, because they aren’t on the defensive as they would be after being called out publicly.

    I say, fuck that. It’s never ever worked out that way in my experience. It gives the offenders a breathing space in which they aren’t publicly called out over their offense.

    Also, no one has ever done me that favor. Ever. Can you imagine the slymepitters calling you up and saying, “hey, I was going to do a little photoshop exercise with your face and this picture of a micropenis, would you like to talk about it first?”

  10. Anthony K says

    This is great!

    Problem with Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaxxerism? Give her a ringy-dingy.

    Don’t like Pope Francis’ take on condoms, abortion, or same-sex marriage? Call him up and say ‘Ciao’.

    Ken Ham’s creationism got you down? Chat him up over coffee.

    Unless one subscribes to a Manichean worldview in which there are atheoskeptics to which such friendly benefit-of-the-doubting applies and everybody else to which it doesn’t, these policies spell the end of professional atheoskepticism, ostensibly to be replaced by a massive call centre.

    “Hi, Judd Miller? This is Anthony K, calling on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Atheists and Skeptics. Yes, I’m calling in regard to a recent rally you held to preserve the white race from Jewish infiltration? Yes, I’m calling to correct a few misapprehensions you may be holding about Jews—*click*! Damn. *Dials another number* Hi, Judith Miller, this is Anthony K, calling on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Atheists and Skeptics. Yes, how are you? I’m sorry if I caught you at dinner and over a decade too late, but I wanted to chat with you about how you were wrong with regard to the WMDs—*click*! Damn. *Dials another number* Hello, Gregory Millhearn? Yes, this is Anthony K calling on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Atheists and Skeptics. I understand you wrote a letter to the editor in the Podunk Star Tribune Herald about a link between high voltage power transmission lines and birth defects in the latest litter by your cat mittens? Yes, I’m giving you the courtesy of a telephone call to correct some misinformation…”

    But I am curious: if the idea is to protect the church from public embarrassment at all costs, why not just phone up the Vatican and get a copy of their handbook?

  11. M. J. says

    Hi, first time commenting here. I wanted to say that I’ve been following a lot of the issues/drama in the secular community since the infamous Elevatorgate and I have to say this ‘just pick up the phone’ bullshit hits me pretty close to home. I was bullied from my first day of school and had to move schools twice to escape it. The first Primary school (aussie here btw) was by far the most incompetent, when it all started to spiral out of control (I was coming home with bruises and there was an older boy who kept trying to pull my skirt up while pulling my underwear down) I got taken aside privately and told ‘if someones bullying you, just tell a teacher! It’s as simple as that’. Well it wasn’t as simple as that. Most teacher’s I told didn’t do much more than yell ‘stop that’ and then walk away leaving me open to more abuse for ‘tattling’. To be clear these bullies weren’t just a couple kids calling me names, these were gangs of six or more kids all older and bigger than me who would come over to shove me, trap me, belt me with food and rocks all because they were ‘bored’. I could write pages on it but the summation of my experiences is: I was always blamed for how I reacted, not the children who would bully me. Their behaviour was treated as normal and as something that ‘can’t be helped’ my behavior was treated as easily changeable and it was my own fault if I didn’t find it easy to ignore bullies. Hence I now can’t help but think any person who offers ‘pick up the phone’ or ‘call the police’ as their most helpful advice on how to deal with bigoted abuse is essentially saying ‘Bother someone else about your problems, I either don’t see any or don’t care. Either way it’s just not my responsibility’. It is just one small step away from outright dismissing the problem as one at all. I really empathize with what some of the bloggers here have to put up with, at least I could solve my bullying problem by moving schools, where do you run to when communicating over the internet?

    Anyway sorry for the long post, thanks for everything you guys do. I’ve lurked here for years and count me as one of the people who can say reading the blogs on this network was a real eye opener about a real further need for feminist causes. Although sometimes I wish I didnt know about Vacula, guys the same age as me and it makes me ashamed there are parts of my generation made up of people like him. I honestly assumed he was a crotchety old timey bigot upset that he couldn’t get away with treating women as lesser beings anymore until I found out otherwise. Depressing.

  12. ~G~ says

    They do know what they’ve opened up for themselves by telling people to pick up the phone, right? I hope they have administrative assistants.

  13. kellym says

    Another example: Skepchick had raised thousands of dollars for TAM, Skepchicks were enthusiastic supporters of TAM, and Rebecca Watson and Surly Amy were both in frequent contact with DJ Grothe over their activities and events to help make TAM 2012 a success. In May 2012, DJ Grothe publicly blamed (falsely, I believe) Rebecca Watson, among other feminists, for lowering female registration at TAM. DJ literally had Rebecca’s number and apparently passed on several occasions to discuss the issue with her privately.

    Who knows? I might not have cancelled my JREF membership if he had.

  14. doubtthat says

    Am I to understand that the skeptical/atheist community wants to institute a “no snitching” rule?

  15. kosk11348 says

    Any word on what sources they used to formulate these strategies? Or are these all supposed to be “common sense” solutions with no actually inquiry into whether they work as advertized?

  16. Anthony K says

    Any word on what sources they used to formulate these strategies?

    Und wenn du lange in einen Kirche blickst, blickt der Kirche auch in dich hinein.

  17. deepak shetty says

    If we see a banker or a CEO “doing something that you think is wrong or bad” we don’t “pick up the phone”; we blog or tweet or set up a petition.
    But conversely if its a friend or a relative we dont immediately go and facebook/tweet their bad behavior.
    I suppose it all boils down how likely you think something is a mistake/misunderstanding or behavior that can be rectified. I can see where the open letter is trying to go but I dont think the writers have looked at some of the examples on the ground.

  18. alwayscurious says

    The pick up the phone strategy is reserved for close personal friends and minor problems communicated from a third party. For the most part, it’s a strategy that doesn’t have a whole lot of use in the Internet age. As they said, “Trust but verify”–if you verified that Party X made Statement Y; not a whole lot of sense in privately asking if Party X really meant Statement Y.

  19. says

    When you think people are doing something harmful to you or others, your first thoughts should go to protecting their fragile egos.

  20. A Hermit says

    And how do you call the pseudonymous Slymepitter to charitably ask if that latest pornographic photoshop was meant to be offensive or not?

  21. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Honestly, the only way this could have come across as more clueless about what’s actually going on is if they’d suggested you have your assistant call his assistant and make the two of you an appointment at your club so you can discuss it over a snifter of brandy and a game of baccarat.

  22. leni says

    I think there could be a time or place for picking up the phone. Maybe you know the person well enough that you have reason to believe it would be worthwhile.

    Maybe you are peers or friendly acquaintances and a gentle nudge was all that was needed. If that fails, then pull out the big guns, so to speak. There may be times when discretion is called for.

    But there are also times when it isn’t.

    Mitt Romney and his 47% remarks, for example. That is one of those times when the ethical thing to do is to go public and to do it quickly so as to not allow the jackass any time to prep for damage control. Sometimes the ethical thing to do is to expose the person doing the unethical things.


    1) Neither case is a one size fits all solution for every circumstance.
    2) Only one (guess which!) is effective when dealing with bullies or others whose bad behavior occurs when others aren’t “really” looking and
    3) You can’t just assume private conversations haven’t already been had. Especially since they’re, you know, private.

    With regard to number 3, you should sort of expect to be out of the loop unless it’s you or perhaps a very close friend.

    Also, at this stage in the game the cat is way, way outta the bag. It ain’t going back ever. That doesn’t mean there isn’t ever room for private conversations between peers or friendly acquaintances, but for many of us there’s just no going back and even if there were, there’s no option for a friendly chat because we aren’t peers or acquaintances and it would weird.

    You know, Justin Vacula does not know me from jack. I am absolutely not calling him up or sending him an email to chastise him for his trollish behavior. Were he the head of some unnamed organization representing a cause I cared about, I’d expect him to fucking know better and I wouldn’t bother with trying to send him an email about it before I called him out in as public a way as I could.

    So maybe the phone call or email is good advice for a peer or a relative or friend in some circumstances. But I can’t help but think M.J. had it right and that in this case mostly it just sounds like “Lalalalalalala”.

  23. billingtondev says

    This has so many parallels with workplace bullying. In that context an ongoing campaign of deliberate malice, directed at a particular person – or small group of people – with the conscious aim of destroying them and their career is labelled a ‘personality clash’.
    It is so common – no matter where in the world it occurs – that it is completely predictable. This is well documented in workplace bullying literature. It’s so predicatable that when those particular words/phrases are used in the context of ongoing “problems” in the workplace it is an absolute red-flag ‘tell’ that bullying is occurring.

    And if that doesn’t work – then it will be a ‘tough managment style’ – if your bully also happens to be your manager.

    And what also happens in w/p bullying is that the ‘well intentioned’ bystanders – who just want all the ‘trouble’ to stop will encourage the target to find ways of ‘getting along with’ the bully. They suggest dealing with this through mediation, conflict resolution, one-on-one meetings etc (or ‘picking up the phone’) to ‘sort out’ their ‘personality’ differences. All these ‘well intentioned’ responses are predictable too. They are another ‘tell’ that bad shit is happening here.

    And the problem for the target is then that not only are they fighting an ongoing daily campaign of hatred from one, or a small group of bullies, but that they are now also becoming isolated from the very people who could give them the most support – ie the (generally less directly affected) bystanders. The target/s becomes more and more isloated and deprived of access to the resources they need to fight the bullying.

    The saddest thing is that the ‘bystanders’ genuinely beleive/hope/wish that this approach will solve the ‘problem’. They think this will make the workplace safe from bullying and that it will therefore never happen to them. They are wrong. Bullies must have target. It is their ‘way of being in the world’. They don’t know anything else. Every single ‘well intentioned’ bystander is at risk of being targetted at some point if the bullying is not directly addressed, and the target fully supported.

    The online context is a bit different to the w/p bullying context – but the patterns, and characterstic ‘tells’ look exactly the same to me. Bystanders need to be staunch and and strong and stand up to bullying – or it WILL be some of them next.

    And when that happens, they will need staunch allies.

  24. PatrickG says

    @ M. J.

    Seconding OB’s comment — don’t apologize for that comment. It was exactly on point and very interesting to read. You should comment more, but beware: this way lies danger, namely a lot of refreshing pages to keep yourself current. 🙂

    Comment threads. Damn their black hearts!

  25. LeftSidePositive says

    @Billington, #26:

    I think it’s a very good analogy (especially because for many of the activists who run these blogs, this IS their professional environment). QualiaSoup actually has a great video about this. I think Ophelia’s posted it before, but it deserves a repeat:

  26. Chiral says

    So, why didn’t all those people sign with their phone numbers? How am I supposed to call them when they are utterly dismissive of things that affect me constantly and deeply if they don’t give me their number?

    Good grief, 18 months ago, I was trying to figure out how to get well enough to attend an atheist conference. Now, what’s the point? If I want to be harassed for being me, I can get that right here. If I want to be propositioned or called a bitch, I can just go to work. At least they pay me, too.

    Is there anything worthwhile in the organized atheist movement that I can’t get right here in Idaho? It looks less and less like there is every day.

  27. says

    People have criticized the substance of the letter, and I have little to add.

    My question is: just who do they think they are? Organizations exist to be vehicles through which people can join together to participate in the making of history – they have a voice in the organization and the organization represents their voices externally. People do not exist to serve or support organizations, and organizations have zero right to expect or demand service, support, or deference.

    Atheist-freethought organizations can’t compel subservience because they’re the only real game in town, as religious organizations try to do. And they can’t claim to be the only alternative to true evil, as the Democrats can sometimes do. All they can do is try to demonstrate that they’re the best of the available alternatives for collective action on the issues people are most concerned with. And good luck with that. There are obviously many existing alternatives through which people can pursue social justice goals (including debunking), and if we’re unhappy with them we can always start up our own.

    I’m not suggesting that the organizations signing on will imediately fail or go into steep decline. They could even grow. But on this path they’re not going to advance the social justice goals they claim to support or attract people with an interest in these goals.

    I’m neither surprised nor baffled by this letter. If I had to predict realistically, based on the past two years, their public statement, it would look a lot like this. This is the message the leadership of the larger organizations have sent for some time, and, barring a reversal, I think this presumptuous, clueless missive from on high (much less Ron Lindsay’s response to Rebecca Watson) calls for leaving them behind for the foreseeable future.

  28. jenBPhillips says

    Ron Lindsey’s reply to Rebecca was SOOOO disappointing. At that point, several feminist atheist/skeptics had expended some effort to give detailed responses to the Open Letter–responses to which Rebecca linked before adding her own thoughts. Lindsey said, in part:

    The statement was not intended to solve all the world’s problems. It was intended to address the issue of online conduct, which the signatories recognized is a serious problem — moreover, it’s a problem they believe they can and should address. This does not imply there are not other problems.
    If the leaders of secular organizations stay silent, then they are faulted for that. If they unite behind a statement, then they are accused of issuing pronouncements from the mountaintop. If the statement doesn’t address all issues that may be of concern to people in the movement, then, apparently, the statement instantly becomes unacceptable.
    Perhaps you should evaluate the statement in its own terms. Is there something specifically mistaken in its contents such that you think it was wrong for the signatories to endorse it .. or is the gravamen of your complaint that it did not include items you think should have been included?

    Gee, Ron, perhaps you should evaluate the specific *responses* that all make it pretty clear what the “gravamen of the complaint” is? This just sounds defensive as hell, from someone who should know better. He wrote a letter for Amy’s ‘speaking out’ series. He KNOWS what Rebecca and other prominent feminist atheist/skeptics have been subjected two over the past several years. WTF??

  29. billingtondev says

    LeftSidePositive @28

    Yes – an excellent video, and a great resource!

    Something else that happens in w/p bullying situations is the delight that w/p bullies take in generally causing chaos and upset in the workplace. For them, seeing their target/s and possible-allies-of-the-target falling out with each other, is a source of pure glee. While targets and bystanders bicker and fight with each other, the bullies stand in the background sniggering and congratulating themselves. Bullying is easier to get away with in the midst of chaos.

    One difference between the two contexts though, is that w/p bullying is hidden. It happens in private, behind closed doors, through one-to-one communication or in ways that only the target knows what is being directed at them – microaggressions meant only for the target to see etc. That is why one of the best things that w/p targets can do is document everything. Record everything. The record shows the pattern of behaviour. The pattern is another key ‘tell’. Individual incidents can be easily explained away – but an ongoing pattern is harder to refute.

    But online is different. Its pretty easy to see. The record is all there – recorded for bystanders to see if they choose too. This is kinda puzzling to me. In my experience, once bystanders in the w/p see the record, see the sheer amount of effort that has gone into a bullying campaign, some of them at least, will understand and realize where their focus needs to be – ie on the bully!

    Maybe the bullying IS still somewhat “hidden” tho – even online? Unless you go searching at specific websites, monitor twitter, check out different individuals blogs and their comment pages or where people individually record their own personal examples of harrassment – maybe it does seem to bystanders that its all just a few one off incidences of a ‘difference of opinion’ or ‘satire’ or ‘being a bad at skepticism’ or ‘joking’ or what ever? So they can go on beleiveing that it can all be sorted by engaging in some sort of ‘dialogue’? Or making a few phonecalls. Maybe there needs to be some sort of central depository or something? Where all the evidence is gathered together and the patterns can be easily seen? I don’t know. But it all feels awfully familiar – and kind of terribly predictable.

  30. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    There’s no way that this is going to be resolved anytime soon. Orgs have to make a choice: do they want to actually work for social justice or simply claim they are for it but make no changes to actually encourage it to happen. Those in the latter category will attract those interested in equality and diversity and those in the former can have their backslapping, bigfoot debunking, privilege-denying frat boy side of movement to do with as they please.

  31. says

    jenBPhillips, it is also worth noting that before the meeting, they solicited feedback on the role of feminism in the movement. What they ended up publishing was a comment on online behavior.

  32. jenBPhillips says

    Well, clearly, online behavior is a completely separate thing that happens in a vacuum and never, ever bleeds into real life, either for the perpetrators of the recipients of harassment. So, yay! Problem solved! Gordian knot cleaved right down the middle!

    Now we can all turn our attention to far more serious problems than a few chicks getting hate tweets, amirite?

  33. says

    I’m getting weary of the constant assumption by the patronizing, authoritarian, and clueless do-gooder wings of the atheism epic movement that everyone shares their particular goals. When it was about accommodationist, it was all “if we talk about atheism, we’ll drive away potential skeptical theist allies,” ignoring the fact that “growing the skeptical movement” was not the only relevant goal. Replace “skeptical” with “privileged,” and you’ve largely got the current anti-SJ complainers. And here, it’s “before you call someone out, get their side of the story,” to further this goal of playing nice and cooperating and holding hands around the campfire. Do they think that we wouldn’t have figured that out if unity was our driving goal? Do they ever even consider that some people may have different priorities?

    One point of addressing this people have said or done publicly (note that there’s no ‘before you as a figurehead for an organization sound off on Twitter or Facebook, call up a PR person and ask if what you’re saying is a good idea’) is to hold them accountable for their words and deeds. This is not accomplished by a phone call. A phone call is hampered by standards of polite conversation (part of their point, methinks). A phone call makes it difficult to talk about the things people actually said and all too easy for people to weasel out of their words. A phone call, perhaps most importantly, doesn’t leave any paper trail (real or digital). Any report of what the callee’s response was will merely be hearsay from the caller. There’s no accountability with a phone call. A person who says stupid, divisive things online, under this system, would merely have to endure a few phone calls from the people who actually have their number and bother to take the time, where they can say “I’m sorry, but you’re misinterpreting what I said” or “I didn’t mean it in that way,” and hang up. There’s no consequence for bad behavior and stupid statements. Is that really what the atheoskeptical movement wants?

    When someone says or does something stupid publicly, I want to see them publicly criticized and called out, and moreover, I want to see their response. Are they able to take the criticism? Are they open to changing ther minds? Can they be graceful and gracious in admitting mistakes or acknowledging other points of view? Or do they double down, stomp and shout, or throw a hyperbolic hissy fit? There’s that oft-repeated story about the old scientist who expresses such joy and gratitude to the person whose work proves him wrong. Shouldn’t every skeptic have that opportunity?

  34. Pieter B, FCD says

    Anybody got a phone number for Ron Lindsay?

    We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.

    Well, huzzah for you. If you’d included the phrase “will not be tolerated,” I’d shout it loudly. Use of the word “defenestration” will get a standing O.


  1. […] fundraiser for his own organization, displayed a stunning lack of professionalism, and went against the principles he himself had agreed to abide by. He betrayed himself as well as the women he said he stood by. That shows a weakness of moral fiber […]

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