The new coolest part of my job…

…is that I get invited to participate in stuff like this:

For those of you who somehow managed to miss it on the other FTBlogs, yesterday a group of us, along with Rebecca Watson of Skepchick, convened online to host the first (and, judging by the response from the other folks, not the last) Google+ hangout forum. We were discussing, among other things, sexual harassment at skepty/athie conferences like The Amazing Meeting, and specifically the piss-poor way in which DJ Grothe of JREF was handling the issue.

It practically goes without saying that I enjoyed the shit out of myself.

I said it jokingly, but I was serious in my self-appraisal as someone who was more or less a dispassionate third-party observer. I don’t really have a dog in this fight – I wasn’t ever planning on going to TAM, and it had nothing to do with any kind of sexual harassment policy. It just doesn’t really interest me a great deal – the stuff that I care about doesn’t really fall under TAM’s umbrella, and unless the JREF decides to suddenly adopt a radically different mission in life, I don’t see that changing. This isn’t a criticism – TAM should keep doing what has apparently been a very successful event – it just means that I don’t really care either way if TAM succeeds. I’ve therefore intentionally stayed out of the discussion, because I don’t really have that much to contribute besides saying “I agree with Stephanie Zvan” until my vocal chords are hoarse.

That being said, I did have two main points that I wished to contribute to the discussion around this issue:

1. There is a simple fix to the immediate problem of harassment

The problem isn’t that people get sexually harassed at conferences. Yes, that is a problem, but it is not the problem. Nobody is even remotely suggesting that TAM is uniquely full of creepshows and serial rapists. Anyone who thinks that this is an exercise in “TAM is a bad conference because women will get raped” is seriously reading a lot of their own dialogue into the discussion. Calm down. Have a pretzel.

The problem is and always has been the way in which complaints about harassment (which are routine in any type of gathering) are handled by the organizers. Feminist voices have been saying this all along – it’s symptomatic of how non-male participants are thought of in the context of the larger movement. If I’m going to a place where I know I’m going to encounter a lot of unwelcome behaviour (e.g., sexual harassment), and I know that I will have nobody to complain to, and nothing will get done except that someone will condescendingly tell me to grow a “thicker skin”, then why on Earth would I want to go to that? Why would it surprise anyone that I’d opt out of something like that?

The issue is one of response – do we behave as though we care and are listening to people who say that they have a problem, or do we ignore them? Or do we do what Mr. Grothe has done and blame people for bringing up the problem in the first place? Or do we heap abuse on anyone who speaks up for themselves and then turn around and express our bafflement that people don’t report incidents more often.

The answer is pretty simple: we can change the story of sexual assault at conferences from the current one (“sexual harassment happens at conferences”) to a better one (“sexual harassment happens at conferences, and it is unacceptable, and here’s what we do when it happens”). If I knew that the behaviour I find troubling was treated seriously, and that there would be repercussions for anyone who does it if I complain, then that’s one less impediment to my participation. It’s not complicated; at least, it shouldn’t be complicated.

2. This fight is part of a much larger issue

There is a non-trivial proportion of the skeptic/atheist/freethought community who feel that these kind of discussions are not valid. They don’t necessarily believe that anything that I or Jason or Rebecca have said are incorrect, they think they’re irrelevant. Any time these issues come up, therefore, we will get hooting and hollering from the people who are “tired of talking about this” or who think we have “better things to discuss”.

These people are wrong. And they are assholes.

I agree with Dan Fincke that values and other philosophical topics need to become part of the mainstream discussion. It may be inadvisable to try and establish a singular secular morality, but we should absolutely be applying the principles of skepticism to social issues like feminism and anti-racism. We should have discussions about these things because they matter. Yes, racism homophobia and misogyny don’t often lend themselves to empirical testing, but we can certainly measure their effects and talk about the best ways to combat them.

To the people who say that our movement isn’t about these non-physical issues, I say quite the contrary – we are the best-equipped group to be making progress on them. And as we try to expand our numbers and see bigger turnouts to things like TAM, we have to reach out to different types of people. That means we need to have these conversations, because that’s how the world works. You don’t get to tell people their presence and input are valued, but only if they restrict their input to the topics that you decide are ‘relevant’. The community decides that for themselves.

Until we are able to get that message across, that these kinds of topics deserve discussion and that they are part of our growth and progress as a social movement, we will keep having fights like this. And there will keep being assholes who stand on the sidelines and chastise ‘both sides’ for fighting about things that aren’t “important”.

That being said, it is fairly obvious that I was the comic relief of the group (a role that I was overjoyed to play). It was a fun way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon, and I got to make the lone elevator joke at Rebecca’s expense so it was totes worth it just for that.

If you can’t watch the video or missed something, Kate Donovan has generously transcribed the panel discussion.

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  1. kaboobie says

    Thanks for participating in this chat. I wanted to point out that your point #2 wound up being the central topic of the Diversity in Skepticism panel at last year’s TAM. Greta Christina and Jamila Bey spoke particularly well in favor of the opinion you present here. DJ was most emphatically on the side of “limiting the scope” of Skepticism. This may be colored by my existing bias*, but I thought Jamila and Greta kicked DJ’s ass.

    * I am speaking of bias toward one opinion, not bias against DJ. I actually considered DJ a friend at the time.

  2. says

    If I’m ever on the other side of ANY debate in which Greta and Jamila are allied, I’m going to just go ahead and assume I’m wrong.

  3. embertine says

    You only turned up so you could flirt with PZ. WE SEED YOU

    But seriously, good talk. Even where there were points of difference, everyone was clearly trying to work towards acceptable consensus. OMG HIVEMIND!!!111

  4. says

    The dirty secret of this interaction is, of course, that we had discussed this issue via e-mail beforehand so there weren’t too many surprises. Everyone respects the hell out of each other, so it was unlikely we were going to have too much mudslinging to begin with.

  5. says

    Ears perk. Ottawa november? I don’t suppose there’s actually something happening in my neck of the woods in November?

  6. says

    🙁 I thought I had stumbled upon precisely the correct context in which it wasn’t a problem. Sorry.

    Back to the drawing board. There’s a harmless joke in there somewhere, and dad gummit I’m going to find it!

  7. says

    Yay a conference in town that I don’t have to travel for I so want to break my long standing introversion for this ^.^ Suddenly very excited about the conference scene 😛

  8. says

    I once spent a week driving around Scotland in the midst of hurricane left-overs with friends of friends whom I’d just met. It involved things like driving across the country (literally) in the middle of the night because that was where the only open hotel room was once all the hikers were washed out of the hills, significant cost overruns, and hours-long detours around washed out roads. On top of that were food issues caused by undiagnosed allergies and undisclosed lard.

    It took us about five years to be able to joke about it. I give this seven or eight.

  9. says

    No worries.

    The problem isn’t that it’s something I (or others) can’t joke about, it’s just that the market is so saturated with dudebros going “HAAAAAAAAAAELEVATOR AMIRIGHT” that non-shitlords who want to joke about it must keep a very, very high standard. Is that standard unreachable? Possibly. I don’t think so, but possibly.

  10. says

    Cue accusations of an echo chamber, group think, etc. As I said over at Jason’s, you were totally bad ass in that hangout. As well as amusingly hogging the limelight at the beginning 🙂

  11. 'Tis Himself says

    Calm down. Have a pretzel.

    Pretzels are calming? Citation needed!

    There is a non-trivial proportion of the skeptic/atheist/freethought community who feel that these kind of discussions are not valid. They don’t necessarily believe that anything that I or Jason or Rebecca have said are incorrect, they think they’re irrelevant.

    This is the part of the sexism discussion that’s most annoying. If large numbers of skeptics consider some topic to be relevant, then for certain people to unilaterally declaring it irrelevant is either a display of hubris or stupidity (these two choices are not mutually exclusive).

    Women are staying away from various skeptics and atheists meetings because all too many (often self-appointed) “influential” skeptics and/or atheists have determined that sexism at the meetings and in the movements generally are “irrelevant.” This attitude is counter-productive if increased attendance at meetings is desirable.

    Note I’m not discussing the moral or ethical aspects of dismissing valid concerns about sexism, just a practical aspect. DJ Grothe wonders why women aren’t going to TAM. It’s because, by his statements on the subject, Grothe is dismissing these valid concerns by answering them with strawmen. If he doesn’t care enough to discuss the subject with a wide spectrum of women (Mallorie Nasrallah and Sara Mayhew are not a wide spectrum), then he’s declaring their concerns to be irrelevant.

  12. tort says

    Something that I was surprised that I haven’t seen brought up (though I may have missed it) DJ is now the problem. There already is an issue with women being afraid/unwilling to report harassment because they fear that their concerns will not be taken seriously and there may be negative consequences for reporting harassment (particularly if it’s a speaker or someone involved in conference organisation). I don’t think at this stage that saying that they have a harassment policy and claiming that it will be enforced is enough any more. Something more drastic needs to be done, DJ resigning would be the obvious answer. At the very least someone else needs to be put in charge of handling harassment complaints with DJ clearly divorced from that process, someone with some credibility.

    I don’t think we can ask women to trust that someone who has behaved like DJ has will handle their harassment complaint properly.

  13. Daniel Schealler says

    The past, present and future walked into a bar.
    It was tense.

    A rich man walked into a bar and said: “I’ll by ten rounds of drinks for everyone here!”
    The barman said: “Sir! Now that is an order of magnitude!”

    What does sixteen sodium atoms and Batman have in common?

    Thank you, thank you.

    I’m here all week.

    Tip your waitress.


  14. HP says

    1) I am old. Fair warning about my lawn, etc.

    2) So, back in the 1970s, I followed skepticism quite a bit, but at that time, for a kid in the sticks, this meant reading books and magazines and watching TV. It was non-interactive. (I watched Randi perform psychic surgery on Johnny Carson live! It was pretty, um, amazing. I also saw Carson eviscerate Uri Geller as it happened. It was brutal, uncomfortable, and necessary. I watched “Cosmos” with my Christian Dad [awkward silence].) Then, other things, like studying music and growing up and falling in love, intervened, and I sort of lost track for 20 years.

    3) In the early days of the Information Superhighway a.k.a World Wide Web, I found the websites of JREF and CSICOP. I initially enjoyed the articles (all debunkings — yeti, ghosts, cold reading, you know the drill), so I followed the author links to their homepages. Now, I’m reluctant to mention this, because this was 15 years ago, I don’t remember names, and most of these sites are dead or consigned to the Wayback Machine, but what I found astonished me. These were guys (all guys) who were totally neutral about politics/culture when writing for the main skeptical outlets, but their personal writing was full of blatant racism and misogyny (lots of Charles Murray fans writing for JREF at the time). So I drifted from Skepticism again, but this time it was because I was disgusted rather than distracted.

    3a) Debunking is easy. Knowledge is hard.

    4) I discovered the “New Atheists” (a.k.a, the same old atheists) when political bloggers (particularly Amanda Marcotte and Atrios) started linking to PZ.

    5) Like you, Ian, I don’t have a dog in this fight — TAM and JREF are not my thing. (And Las Vegas is definitely not my space.) But what is truly amazing to me is watching the conversation. I know this is difficult for activists, but it’s fascinating to sit back and watch how the different sides of the conversation fall into different argumentative styles. (Note to Debunkers: When your argument boils down to “Shut up, that’s why,” you’ve lost the argument.)

    I think that the conversations with the community regarding feminism, LGBT issues, and race are the most important discussion people could possibly be having. I’m with Dennett on religion — what we are seeing is the last desperate fight of folks who can see the handwriting on the wall (<–biblical allusion alert) — but the role of skepticism in promoting human equality is the real battleground.

    Which, I suppose, is a long-winded way of saying that I really, really, really enjoyed the video (and all the blog posts and social media events that preceded it).

    What's that thing the kids say? "Moar lik this, plz."

  15. says


    This drives me nuts: “We’re supposed to be men and women (people) of reason”.

    What, we’re supposed to be beings that transcend our biology? That transcend the physical makeup of our brains?

    This kind of essentialist crap drives me nuts. It’s nothing more than tribalism, and us-and-them thinking. I hates it.

    This is one of the reasons I react against the notion of an ‘atheist’ community or a ‘skeptic’ community: this kind of labeling often belies this kind of essentialist nonsense.

    (Your points, for the record, are exactly on the nose imo)

  16. says

    I think your point no. 2 is spot-on, and I think this is why we should embrace Secular Humanism and not just Atheism/Rationalism/Skepticism/Freethought as labels. Nirmukta’s tagline used to read “Promoting Science and Freethought in India”, but after some strategizing we changed that to “Promoting Science, Freethought and Secular Humanism in India”, so that people immediately know that social justice is a *core* part of our agenda. We made it clear in our “About” page also – I like what this article says in relation to Secular Humanism – ‘When people ask me whether I’m an atheist, I say, “Yes, but that’s just the beginning.”’

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