Atheist men behaving badly and the bystander issue

In response to my post on the rally by Orthodox Jews warning about the internet, commenter No Light provided a link to a site called UNPIOUS: Voices on the Hasidic Fringe where those fighting to combat sex abuse in the Orthodox community reported their experiences as they protested outside the rally.

It is quite extraordinary how universal seems to be the range of defensive strategies of religious people to accusations of wrongdoing: deny that any abuse occurred at all; argue that if anything did happen, it was a rare aberration and should be resolved quietly within the community; insult the accusers; and when all else fails drag in that old standby, Hitler. But one story stuck out for me:

While handing out pamphlets, I approached three Chassidim. They refused to take a flyer unless I first told them what it was about. I told them it’s an explanation for why this asifa is so vital to the community’s cover up of child sexual abuse.

The first Chasid started scolding me, to the point of almost jumping me: “How dare you fabricate lies? Stuff like that doesn’t happen in our community.”

The second Chasid, in a calmer tone, yet still quite unnerved, said, “I wouldn’t deny that it happens here and there… but this venue is not the place or time to make an issue about it.”

The third Chasid got quite upset at the other two and started yelling at them: “You guys are both in denial and choose to stick your heads in the sand. It’s a major problem our community. We should be the ones doing what this kid id doing. Right here right now! Be happy someone is doing it.”

It was then that a civil conversation between the four of us began. I was quite impressed at sudden willingness of all of them to approach the issue somewhat more open-mindedly.

This illustrates the important role that bystanders can play in changing things. If that third person had not challenged his friends but stayed quiet because of not wanting to disrupt relationships, then the productive conversation would not have occurred.

I myself tend to not want to create unplesantness and it used to be the case that in social settings, I would not object when someone said something that I found objectionable. I would stay quiet, hoping the conversation would shift to another topic. I later realized that this was a big mistake and now speak up immediately but politely and make it clear that I disagree with the sentiment just expressed. It is quite remarkable how you can turn the tide of a conversation by doing so, as other people quickly come to your side.

The bystander issue has relevance to something that Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds raised about the important issue of sexism within the secular movement that keeps surfacing from time to time. She had just returned from the Women in Secularism conference and reported on some conversations that she had had about some of the well-known men acting obnoxiously towards women at secular gatherings.

I am not a part of the secular movement conference circuit. I attend some local events in my area but that is about it. The Reason Rally is the only national event I have attended. Hence I have not met personally almost all of the well-known names in the secular movement who are the speakers at these events and so cannot report any first-hand experiences but want to share some general thoughts on this topic.

It should not surprise us that sexism exists within the secular movement, just as it does elsewhere in society, though one would wish that it did not. The question is what to do about it. How does one discourage it? According to Stephanie, women who are in the know and are better networked get warnings to steer clear of some people but clearly that is a limited solution. Directly confronting the offenders that their behavior is unacceptable is usually the recommended solution but this is always easier said than done, especially in ambiguous situations like this where the line between harmless flirtation and harassment is hard to discern. No one likes to be in the position of accusing someone of behaving badly only to find later that they were mistaken. Harassers are often skillful at exploiting ambiguity.

Furthermore, unlike in the workplace where there are often people whose job it is to respond to these kinds of complaints and take action, in this situation the people that are comparable are the conference organizers. But there is not much that they can do apart from not inviting the offenders as speakers in the future and letting them know why. They are loath even to do that because these speakers are apparently often marquee names that conference organizers hope will help attract an audience.

Can bystanders help here? As in the above story, the attitude of bystanders can be a force for good if such behavior occurs in a group of people. If most people are disapproving of such behavior and make their feelings known in both subtle and direct ways, that might mitigate the problem. The catch is that unless the offender is unbelievably arrogant or stupid, such unwelcome overtures are likely to occur in private, away from other people.

But even if it did happen in a group setting, it is not clear what the bystander should do. For one thing it first requires that they recognize undesirable behavior when it occurs. I for one am terrible at this, unless it is so obvious that even a child would notice or if I have been made aware of the problem beforehand and know what to look for. I did start to wonder what I, as a bystander, would do if I did happen to notice such behavior. What options are there? The catch is that while you want to oppose it, you also do not want to risk patronizing the woman at the receiving end of the unwelcome advances, as if she could not deal with it herself. I suppose that what it requires is close observation to see if the woman is seeking allies in the crowd to support her in confronting the behavior, and then stepping in if it is clear that she does. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo in his book The Lucifer Effect (p. 315-323) points to numerous studies that show that having just one ally in a group tends to provide enormous strength to people taking an unpopular stand.

We should also realize that people who do the harassing may well be unaware that their advances are unwelcome. Indeed, they may think that they are flattering their victim by paying them attention. This suggests that rather than hoping that they get the hint by the way people respond to them in group settings, perhaps the best remedy is to abandon subtlety and use a more direct method using an intermediary. If someone is a notorious harasser, then it should be brought to the attention of his peer or friend or colleague to convey a direct message to the harasser that he is becoming notorious and had better behave himself if he does not want to become a total pariah.

The opinion of peers tend to count more than those of strangers and such a direct approach, the equivalent of a slap upside the head, may open that person’s eyes that he is not the dashing Lothario desired by women that he thinks himself to be, but is just a pest.


  1. karmakin says

    One of the biggest problems with dealing with this specific part of the issue (there are other parts of the issue, such as sexist jokes and the like), is that we’re dealing with this based not on the action itself but the reaction to the action.

    We’re not saying that the actions themselves are wrong, we’re saying they’re wrong only when they garner a negative response. The problem with this, is that even if the actor here were completely aware and accepting of the reaction of the other person (something I think is unlikely), the damage has already been done. The person has already been and feels harassed.

    This seems very problematic, at least to me. The ideal solution is to set ground rules to minimize the chance that this would happen, but I don’t think there’s the interest in doing this.

    It’s most certainly a huge problem in the skeptical convention circuit, however I think the emphasis here is on convention and not skeptical, to be honest. The people who are likely to go to conventions are also more likely on average to act in an aggressive creep like fashion. Setting strict ground rules would probably make it less enjoyable of an experience for them, but it would make it much more enjoyable of an experience for people who are constantly harassed or worried about such.

  2. Karl says

    I myself tend to not want to create unplesantness and it used to be the case that in social settings, I would not object when someone said something that I found objectionable. I would stay quiet, hoping the conversation would shift to another topic. I later realized that this was a big mistake and now speak up immediately but politely and make it clear that I disagree with the sentiment just expressed. It is quite remarkable how you can turn the tide of a conversation by doing so, as other people quickly come to your side.

    If you have some rule as to where to draw the line, please enlighten me. I’ve blurted out responses against sentiment before realising that everybody but me realised that it wasn’t meant the way I took it, and felt like an utter fool as a consequence. I’ve also spoken up against something that deserved contradiction, only to babble errant nonsense from unformed thoughts and be shredded in argument. And lastly I’ve stayed silent when hearing things that have made me uneasy, only to later realise that I should have said something if only I’d had the right words to say at the time.

    Ideally I would speak up immediately and also know what I’m talking about, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. So as I seem to be more prone to making mistakes when I speak up too early, nowadays I tend to “keep my mouth shut and be thought a fool rather than open it and remove all doubt”.

  3. Mano Singham says

    What I’ve found to work best is when someone says something that I think is wrong, to ask, “Why do you say that?” That serves two purposes: it gives me time to think about what to say next and it makes that person have to find reasons for whatever they said. Then one can take the discussion in the direction of whether their argument makes sense and then you can give the counter-arguments. In the process, the very fact that you are countering their arguments makes it soon clear that you do not agree with the original sentiment. What you want to do is avoid the ‘assent by silence’ problem.

    I hadn’t thought of it before until you raised it but asking this question also will help you avoid blunders if that person meant something different from what you thought.

    Asking questions of the speaker is something that comes instinctively to me now because I teach in an inquiry mode in which I routinely pose such questions to students in order to get them to think things through on their own.


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