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.