Let's be honest - the Great Atheist Schism has not shown either side in the most flattering light. Some individuals in both camps have been guilty of harassment, abuse, stalking and invasion of privacy.
I agree with many of the stated goals of Atheism Plus, and yet I come down against the movement rather than for it. Why? Because I am struck by their hypocrisy and sanctimony. In their own eyes, they are holier than thou, long-suffering victims, paragons of enlightened and progressive thinking, while everyone else is an utterly depraved misogynist and rapist (if male) or gender traitor (if female).
The plussers refuse to acknowledge any middle ground, or any possibility that those who criticize them may have valid points. But my biggest reason for not getting on board with them is that they are simply irrelevant. They are just another internet echo chamber which has yet to achieve anything of substance in the real world.
Now, I know very well that there have been some incidents of misogynistic abuse on the internet in connection with the A+ drama, and I condemn these incidents. However, I'm not aware of any cases where a woman was attacked out of the blue simply because she was a woman. Rebecca Watson, for example, has been attacked because of her obnoxious treatment of Stef McGraw and others, and because she has the privilege of lecturing audiences on subjects of which she is manifestly ignorant. Jen McCreight has been attacked because she has more than once come across as a privileged princess who thinks the world revolves around her, and is oblivious to the problems of other people.
Again, I don't condone the use of misogynistic language, but the internet is a rough-and-tumble place, and feminists are fully capable of dishing out as good as they get, as a glance at any A+ forum will confirm. I've been active on internet discussion groups (under various different usernames) for longer than I care to admit, cutting my teeth on Usenet back in the day, moving on to blogs in the early 2000's (I had a moderately successful blog which PZ Myers often linked to and occasionally commented on), and more recently becoming active on Reddit and Twitter.
I've been at the receiving end of some robust criticism and disagreement since Day One, and in my experience some of the most violent and unhinged language has come from feminists - even though I've consistently spoken out for choice, against FGM and religious subjugation of women, and generally in support of equal rights, respect and responsibilities for all. "Shove a dead porcupine up your ass" is actually pretty tame compared to some of the things that have come my way.
So it's untrue as well as patronizing to suggest that all women are wilting wallflowers who are incapable of handling the Wild West atmosphere of the internet, and we brutish men must change our ways en masse to accommodate them. The internet is an unforgiving place, and it has a very low tolerance for any kind of hypocrisy and/or playing of the victim card. Let's face it, if you're on the internet in the first place, you are privileged compared to the majority of the human race.
As for sexual harassment at conferences, again this is something which should be condemned if and when it happens. I have nothing against a reasonable and proportionate policy such as Karla Porter has suggested. One point I'm really glad Karla has brought up, since I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere else, is that the obligation not to harass other people entails a corresponding responsibility to speak up if someone is making you feel uncomfortable.
On some other blogs, I've seen proposals that there should be no physical contact unless you first request it verbally and the woman gives verbal assent. This sounds incredibly awkward and stilted - "May I shake your hand? May I touch you lightly on the arm to get your attention?" And yet some women complain that this kind of policy doesn't go far enough: "Many women will say yes anyway, for fear of being labeled a bitch."
Criminy! So now men are supposed to know by psychic power when yes means no? This sort of helpless-victim attitude bugs the living crap out of me. "Please don't do that" - how hard is that? Sweetie, if you can't stand up for yourself in such a basic way, you are incapable of taking responsibility for yourself and should not be out alone in public.
It's really all about attitude. If you go in with a belligerent or fearful attitude, expecting every man you meet to rape you and/or invite you for coffee, you are not going to enjoy yourself, no matter what policy is in place or how stringently it is enforced - and your fellow participants probably won't enjoy your company either.
I recently tweeted:
Ideal harrassment policy for conferences: "Act like a grown-up and we'll treat you like one. The End."I don't want to see long lists of thou-shalt-nots which infantilize the participants and take all the fun and spontaneity out of normal and consensual social interactions. I think A-plus's posture on harassment policies is especially problematic for a number of reasons:
— shrodingerstherapist (@schrostherapist) January 4, 2013
- Hypersensitivity, suspension of critical thinking and eagerness to take offense at the most trivial of issues and non-issues, for example "T-shirt-gate" and "Camera-on-a-stick-gate".
- Use of harassment policies by outsiders as a weapon to exert control over conferences and settle old scores, heedless of the legal liability to which conference organizers may be exposed.
- Use of policies and petitions to carry out vendettas against targeted individuals and give special privileges and protection from legitimate criticism to other individuals, by putting free speech on the same level as "grabbing someone's ass".
- Scaremongering to the effect that sexual harassment is especially rampant at freethought and skeptical conferences.
- Hypocrisy and inconsistency, e.g. refusing to condemn a speaker who harasses an audience member who is not in a position to defend herself.
To sum up, since this post is getting pretty long: I would like to see more civility and a lessening of the temperature by both sides. Currently, I don't see this happening any time soon, because Atheism-plus has gotten itself into a closed feedback loop. It witch-hunts everyone outside its elite in-group as misogynists and rapists, other people react with understandable irritation at this simplistic tribalism and us-versus-them mentality, and A+ takes their reaction as confirmation of its entrenched position.
To move forward, conference organizers should commit to reasonable policies for the safety and comfort of participants, but should refuse to be browbeaten and dictated to by the plussers. Let the plussers organize their own "safe space" conferences where never is heard a discouraging word. Those of us who value critical thinking, rationalism and the free exchange of ideas will support conferences that treat us like grown-ups and provide talented speakers who know what they're talking about.
Here's to a vibrant and stimulating conference schedule in 2013!