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It should go without saying

Yesterday Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins both published, on their respective blogs, a brief joint statement on how atheists should disagree. It’s really unfortunate that such a thing should be necessary, but encouraging that it happened. The statement condemns bullying and harassment generally, and then goes on to cite specific examples of such:

In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

It should go without saying, but this statement comes into the wake of some particularly disgusting instances of people doing exactly these sorts of things, and defending others who have done them. In the comments on this statement on Dawkins’ blog, there are people continuing to defend this kind of behavior:

The reason that people make photoshops of her and her fellow travelers and make derisory comments about her is that they tried very hard to engage in honest discussion with her only to be met with conveniently selective moderation practices, ridiculous accusations of misogyny and a habit of playing the offended victim card to death. People might still have left her to stew in her own juice if not for the attacks on high profile figures over contrived offences. When bloggers jump on board with unevidenced accusations of sexual crimes then they can expect to be lampooned. The rationale behind the ridicule is that there is no point at all in trying to reason with her because she will not give an honest reading to what you say and will likely selectively moderate for effect, so why bother trying to engage politely with her.

No. See, that’s not how it works.

Harassment is not wrong unless you can find some justification in your mind for a person deserving it. It’s wrong, period. If you disagree vehemently with someone, you express this disagreement as an argument. You do not draw childish pictures of them making fun of their appearance. You do not call them demeaning names. You do not, in the same breath, endorse rhetorically punching someone because they won’t listen to you and then, because they complained about the first punch, justify doing it again. You don’t fake a punch and then give them two for flinching. That’s what children and bullies do.

Personally, I see a false dichotomy between harassment and politeness– there’s a world of ways to be rude to and about people without acting like a five year old. But if you’re unable to find a course of action in this realm, I would suggest not engaging with those people. No, going off and drawing a cartoon of them with a pig nose, or spreading around somebody else’s drawing of such, doesn’t qualify as disengagement.

Tribalism is a huge problem in the atheist movement, and my thoughts on that subject are muddled. I haven’t honestly worked out when it’s okay to draw lines in the sand and insist that “we” should no longer value what a certain person has to say because of what they’ve said in the past, or even continue to say, although I think Greta Christina’s recent post on the subject is pretty damn persuasive. There’s only so much time, and only so much attention we have to give, and it’s valid to say that a person’s actions have been so egregious as to disqualify him or her from deserving attention. That doesn’t mean much when you’re talking about someone’s personal attention, but it means a hell of a lot when you’re talking about who to invite to a conference or whose blog to host on your network.

There’s no official code of conduct that people in the atheist movement are forced to follow. If someone behaves reprehensibly, group ostracism is really the only way to deal with it. As a consequence, we continually have people trying to influence the group against someone, or against an organization, because that person or organization is believed to have rendered all charitable assumptions about him/her/them unjustified. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone say (invariably in the comments on the Facebook post of some prominent person in the atheist movement) that they’ve quit “the movement” altogether for this reason. I then laugh inwardly, bitterly, and move on, because the frustration and non committal nature of the statement is so palpable. “I wish I knew how to quit you,” indeed.

Not all “infighting” is created equal. The existence of disagreement, even strong disagreement, does not justify pettiness and childishness. The fact that someone is a “public figure” does not justify it either– public figures are still people. I don’t think it’s tribalistic to tell people who insist otherwise that their behavior disqualifies their views from consideration by people who want rational, respectful dialog, because it’s always possible to find someone expressing the same otherwise worthwhile sentiment while not being a heinous asshole at the same time. We just have to follow up on this promise, and vote with our attention.

I hope we can. I think this joint statement is a move in that direction.

It’s very simple, really. Really.

So the conversation about sexual harassment at skeptical conferences continues on Freethought Blogs, and doesn’t show any sign of ending soon. And it has turned to the topic of what constitutes sexual harassment is generally, what people in charge can do about it, and how to avoid being guilty of it. That’s a good discussion to have…it’s just that it’s not a new discussion, and it’s not a radically different concept from how sexual harassment is handled in the workplace, though it’s kind of bizarre how many people are acting as if it is.

A new person was added to the network, Thunderf00t (no, I don’t know why he spells it like that) who makes Youtube videos on skepticism. In his second post ever as part of the network, what Thunderf00t did was effectively take a flying leap and land right in the middle of a very complex and lengthy discussion, and in doing so he splattered ignorance all over the place. Ignorance of the specific conversation about TAM and DJ Grothe, which is entirely understandable and which I don’t think anyone needs to have knowledge of in order to talk about sexual harassment and sexual harassment policies generally, but also a much less forgivable kind of ignorance– that of what sexual harassment is, and why it still is that even when you add 1) alcohol and 2) fun. Thunderf00t is, you see, quite certain that policies against sexual harassment will be the end of fun, especially while drinking alcohol. So basically he did a big cannonball dive of “I don’t care to even find out what you guys think or have been saying first” right in the deep end of rational discussion, and then he did so again with a follow-up post about PZ Myers after Myers pointed out what was wrong with the first one.

To wit:

And maybe most pertinently, PZ explaining why his policy wouldn’t be a killjoy.

 If you want to chew on some woman’s leg, no, you don’t have to consult the conference handbook.”
“You have to fucking consult the woman.”

Facepalm.  Yes this is exactly why you are killjoys to the VAST majority of civil, honest respectable folks.  IT WAS IN A BAR.  I enjoyed it, she enjoyed it (she left a comment specifically saying so, just to remove all doubt (see MyLegMYCHOICE!)), AND I NEVER HAD TO CONSULT HER, NOR APPLY FOR PERMISSION FROM THE CONFERENCE, IN ORDERS SIGNED IN TRIPLICATE SENT IN, SENT BACK AND BURIED IN SOFT PEAT FOR THREE MONTHS AND RECYCLED AS FIRELIGHTERS etc etc.  Indeed had I had to fill in the paperwork along with ‘permission to bite your leg in a horseplay photo’ form under conference interpersonal contact rule 144 b) 2, it would have probably kinda killed the moment, and neither I nor she would have got our mild thrills for the night.  It’s boys n girls have fun in bars! Look I’ll make it simple, the point of a bar isn’t to make everyone maximally safe (indeed if it were, they would ban bars, as it would be far safer if everyone just stayed at home and did nothing), it’s to let everyone have the most amount of fun.  The reason people don’t go to bars that are maximally safe, is because they are DULL, with folks always living in fear of crossing some random rule written by  some hypersensitive pencil-necked PC jockey.

Man, I hate caps for emphasis. Don’t do it– that’s what italics are for. Use them, so you don’t look like the Unabomber crossed with a chimpanzee. Kaczynski couldn’t help it because he was using a typewriter, but if you’ve got a computer, you have the capacity to use italics! Although if you italicized every word that is capitalized here, it would simply change what looks like a person screaming at the top of his lungs to someone hissing like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Okay, let’s go through the problems with this:

1. “Consult” obviously does not mean filling out documents, as Myers just got done pointing out– not with the conference, not with the woman, not with anybody. Consulting someone means (wait for it) obtaining consent. Yes, it’s that magical word again! And it’s really not a difficult concept. It’s so easy a concept, in fact, that I refuse to believe that Thunderf00t didn’t get it loud and clear from the woman whose leg he bit, and that it was even important to him at the time to get it so as not to come off like an obnoxious creep doing what is technically battery if the recipient is unwilling. You bite a stranger on the leg; you get arrested. There’s a reason for that. And hopefully nobody, including Thunderf00t, wants things any other way.

2. The fact that this is a bar we’re talking about changes precisely nothing. It’s still illegal to bite a stranger’s leg in a bar, regardless of how drunk you are or she is. Groping someone at a bar– any bar– is still not okay if they’re not willing. People go to bars for a lot of reasons, and for some of those people the reasons involve horseplay. For others it doesn’t, and last I checked both groups of people are allowed at most bars. You don’t just assume that a person is up for it without an indication from them, because that’s an excellent way to get booted out of the establishment and because it’s just, you know, wrong.

3. An interesting remark in the comment thread for a post at Almost Diamonds:

When you mention kink here, it just reminds me of another ironic aspect of all this. Thunderf00t is prattling on about how consulting women or setting boundaries (via harassment policies) is prohibiting ‘boys n’ girls having fun.’ But actual kink/BDSM–which I think would be clearly agreed upon by most is definitely one example of ‘boys n’ girls having fun.’–is founded on the idea of consent and boundaries. Because clearly defined consent and boundaries are what make it fun for all parties involved. (Didn’t Greta post something on exactly that subject recently, a kink/sexuality con that had very clear policies and guidelines?) And exactly how does ‘people letting their hair down’ prohibit making everyone ‘maximally safe’? Why does fun = unsafe? You know, I’m pretty sure that even bungee-jumping has safety rules and procedures. Why is there an assumption that respecting personal boundaries means eliminating flirtation and sexual innuendo? Why does being in a bar eliminate the need for consent? And why…ay. I can’t even begin to cover the fail. Why is so something so simple so difficult for people to comprehend?! 

Indeed– it shouldn’t be difficult at all, but the fact that safety is so heavily emphasized in kinky/swinger/BDSM circles is good to note. People who are involved in these groups generally take safety very seriously, because they know the risk of what could happen if they don’t. People could get hurt, physically or emotionally or both. Some people have more fun when the stakes are high, but what goes along with that fun is the necessity of making sure that everybody’s okay and enjoying what is happening. A lot of swingers’ groups don’t even allow single men to attend, because the ultimate concern is that the women who attend feel safe, and they’re not likely to feel safe if the men attending are radically more numerous (no, I don’t know this from experience…I read about it in Skipping Towards Gomorrah).

At the risk of sounding like a broken record yet again– safety isn’t the enemy of fun in a sexual context; it’s a requirement for fun for women, and should therefore be a requirement for men. If it isn’t, that’s the kind of man women fear rather than wanting to have fun with. A man who doesn’t give a damn about consent is bad news, and I wonder how the woman whose leg Thunderf00t bit– with her consent apparently, whether he asked for it or not– feels about the knowledge that he doesn’t consider it necessary to have. Actually, again as I said, he probably does. He just seems to be stunningly unaware of that fact, and how important it is.

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