Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How to Conduct yourself Considerately at Conferences without being a Condescending, Contentious Control-freak

It seems to me that common sense has been the first casualty of T-Shirt-Gate, Camera-on-a-Stick-Gate, and the various other manufactroversies ginned up to support the Atheism-plus/FTB narrative that there is an epidemic of rampant sexual harassment by men at atheist and skeptic conferences.

It's clear to any objective observer that the plussers are shooting themselves in the foot with their reckless scaremongering. But maybe they don't care that they are scaring women away, as long as they get to monopolize the speaker circuit and collect their speaker's fees.

However, it's a serious matter for conference organizers when they hastily impose harassment policies on the basis of a game of telephone that starts with cherry-picked anecdotes that quickly get blown up out of all proportion. Not only do they risk turning off ordinary law-abiding grown-ups with straitjacketing and infantilizing codes of conduct that take all the fun and spontaneity out of legal and consensual friendly interactions, and force everyone to walk on eggshells at all times. They also run the even more serious risk of exposing themselves to significant legal liability if they draft do-it-yourself policies without the necessary legal expertise. One "detrimental reliance" lawsuit could shut a conference down for good.

Rather than drawing up an exhaustive list of thou-shalt-nots, conference organizers would be better advised to put forward a policy that:
  • Explicitly disclaims being a legal document or creating a duty of care, and warns that it should not be relied on as a guarantee of anyone's well-being.
  • Sets expectations on how conference participants are expected to behave, e.g. "All participants are expected to help create a friendly and welcoming atmosphere for one another." It should be about general principles rather than micro-managing trivialities, such as what perfume or cologne people should wear.
  • Encourages participants to contact police or venue security if they fear for their safety.
  • Encourages participants to settle minor disputes directly with one another, without involving anyone else, whenever feasible.
  • Encourages participants to consult staff to resolve problems of intermediate severity.
  • Discourages participants from escalating disputes in an inappropriate way, e.g. by tweeting or blogging people's pictures or private information, or a speaker ambushing an audience member and abusing the power of the podium.
The policy should also make the point that along with the responsibility not to deliberately make other attendees uncomfortable, there is a corresponding responsibility: if you feel uncomfortable with someone else's behavior, speak up! It could be a simple misunderstanding that can be cleared up quickly if you just say something. "Please don't do that, I'm not comfortable with it" is all it takes. And if the other person's action was deliberate, they are now on notice that it is not appreciated.

Notice the phrasing: "I'm not comfortable with it" rather than "You're making me uncomfortable". Take ownership of your own feelings and don't assume that something that you're uncomfortable with is necessarily a case of malice aforethought. For example, some people are huggers while others need a lot more personal space. It's not a question of one person or the other behaving incorrectly. It depends on the individual and his or her cultural background.

Sorry to belabor the point, but on some other blogs I've seen proposals that there should be no physical contact unless you first request it verbally and the other person gives verbal assent. This sounds incredibly awkward and stilted - "May I shake your hand? May I tap you lightly on the shoulder 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, I'm not comfortable with it" - 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.

In a nutshell: have fun, act like a grown-up, be friendly and considerate to other people. Speak up for yourself while respecting others. Take responsibility for your behavior and don't be either passive or aggressive. Be supportive of others and the group as a whole in maintaining a pleasant atmosphere.

Conference organizers, please don't imagine you can anticipate every possibility and create a ruling for it in advance. You will fail! And you'll only create loopholes and anomalies, incentivizing some people to game the system. Stick to broad principles and trust your attendees - the vast majority of them will be reasonable people who don't need everything spelled out for them.

There - you see how easy it is to establish a sensible policy? We don't need to run around like headless chickens screaming that the sky is falling. Nor do we need reams of legalese (apart from some sort of cover-your-ass disclaimer as discussed above), just some common sense and good will.

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 other people probably won't enjoy your company either.

Regarding the last bullet in the above list, it's striking that Myers and company are so blind to their own double standards. Myers would be the first to lose his shit if a speaker called out Rebecca Watson from the podium, or a man tweeted a picture of Adria Richards. If we're going to have codes of conduct, let them be binding on all, without special privileges for anyone! And I specifically condemn codes of conduct that are designed to be weapons to settle old scores in some tribal dispute, or to suppress legitimate criticism and put it on the same level as "grabbing someone's ass." I don't think I need to spell out the hypocrisy involved here.

It seems to me that the ideal conference policy would simply say, "Act like a grown-up and we'll treat you like one." Most disputes can be solved easily if people act maturely and charitably. If conference staff have to intervene, resolution should be calibrated to the cultural norms of the majority of attendees. We should not let the tail wag the dog by trying to cater exclusively to the most hypersensitive, especially when some individuals have shown a willingness to act in bad faith and try to game the system, for example by equating "fake jewelry" with harassment.

Again, it all comes down to common sense and good will - qualities that are sadly lacking in those who are proposing the most rigid and all-encompassing policies!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Women and Bullies

I've been planning to write this post for a long time, but had trouble coming up with a structure for it. I'm still not sure, so I'll just put it out there. (Thanks to Katie whose honest and courageous post about her own dysfunctional family gave me the impetus to finally get this off my chest - sorry I can't find the link now. UPDATE: it's here.)

I grew up in an outwardly normal family, but in reality I was in a very abusive situation. Not sexual abuse, but constant physical abuse and a ton of emotional and psychological abuse. My mother was the main abuser, but my father and siblings also played a large part.

I have no idea what started it all - maybe my mother had post-partum depression after I was born. In any case we never bonded, and she never developed any affection for me. For as long as I can remember, I was the whipping boy of the family. My mother had an explosive temper, and I was almost always the one she took it out on.

My mother could also sometimes lash out against the other family members, but she obviously felt guilty afterwards as she had genuine affection for them, and tried to make it up to them. But when it came to me, she had nothing but hatred and rage.

I could do nothing right - now matter how meek and subservient I was, without warning she would start bellowing about how "insolent" and "ungrateful" I was. Then out would come the wooden spoon, and she would keep on beating me until it broke. That woman got through wooden spoons the way ordinary people get through toilet paper.

Try for a moment to imagine how terrifying it is to be a small defenseless child, and have a mad roaring bull of a woman barreling down on you at top speed, her face contorted with rage. Then the pain that you think is never going to end. Over and over again, the sharp agonizing pain until her weapon breaks. Then maybe she gets in a kick or two to the belly before she finally leaves you alone, crying helplessly on the floor in a broken heap, all dignity gone.

I can still show you the physical scars from those years, but the psychological scars run much deeper. To this day, whenever I make a mistake, however minor, I instantly hear my mother's voice bellowing in my ears: "You stupid fool, you're so stupid, you can't do anything right."

Everyone else in the family, including my father, was afraid of my mother. They would join in the jeering and insults she constantly hurled at me. I see now that it was a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but I have a hard time forgiving them for being complicit in the abuse.

A few years ago my mother died. I didn't go to the funeral, and I never shed a single tear. My only regret was that I never got a chance to tell her face to face how much she had hurt me. Not that it would have done any good, in all probability. She was not at all an introspective person but had a rock-solid faith that everything she did was right, "because I said so."

Obviously my childhood has had a major impact in how I relate to people. I've become a master of invisibility, adept at keeping my head down and not drawing attention to myself. Which is a useful skill if you're trying to avoid being beaten with a wooden spoon (or fists and feet) by your mother, but not so much in adult life, especially in my career. Not to boast, but I have a genius-level IQ and a math PhD from one of the top technical universities in the US if not the world - and yet I've struggled through life, eking out an existence on more or less menial computer programming jobs.

I've often wondered how I didn't end up as some kind of serial killer. I don't mean to be overly dramatic, but I've read a lot about the effects of emotional abuse and denial of affection in children. I can only guess that somehow I tapped into some deep well of inner strength that carried me through. There's also been the occasional act of kindness and caring, sometimes from relatives, sometimes from strangers, sometimes even anonymously over the internet.

If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: don't ever underestimate the value of a small act of kindness. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to put myself out of my misery, but an unexpected act of kindness or a concerned question made me put it off and live another day.

Anyway, my life is more or less stable now. I've been home to visit my father a couple of times since my mother's death, and I've come to realize that he is basically a decent man who was dominated by her, and very much under her thumb. I guess I forgive him in so far as I don't wish him harm. But if I could start my life over again in a different family, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

"So is this why you hate women?"

No, you stupid hypothetical commenter! It's what I hate bullies. And I don't for an instant fall for the line that all women are eternal helpless victims, and all men are violent, rapey and "toxic" in their masculinity. Plus I have contempt for anyone who plays the victim card over trivial slights, whether real or perceived.

There's no neat way to wrap this up, no happy ending - life's a struggle, and you just keep on grinding away until it's over. The best you can hope for is the occasional time when you get caught up in the present moment, focusing so intently on it that you forget the past, and forget yourself. And I'll leave it at that. Thanks for reading, if anyone made it this far!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Breasts or Burqa?

Many people are showing their support for the Tunisian activist Amina. That's great. But @furrygirl makes an interesting point, commenting on Muslim women who are speaking out against FEMEN:

This is one of those cases where Twitter is a poor platform for discussion. Yes, women can make their own choices. But are they really totally free to choose, if they've been covered up and inculcated with self-loathing since childhood?

I have to tell you, I get creeped out when I see pictures like this:

It's very hard for me to see the burqa as anything but a prison the woman is forced to carry around with her, which also destroys her identity and individuality. The guy could divorce and remarry, and he'd never have to change the photo!

Banning the burqa - as France did - is perhaps too extreme a response. But there are legitimate reasons to restrict it. I don't believe someone wearing a burqa should be allowed into a bank or courthouse, or any place where security or the need to verify people's identity is a concern.

Some years ago there was a case in Florida where a Saudi woman demanded the "right" to have her driver's license photo taken with her face completely veiled. Presumably the irony that if she returned to Saudi Arabia, she would not be allowed to drive, escaped her!

Some Muslim women insist that they cover themselves up of their own free will, and enjoying being "invisible" in public. Of course they are not invisible, not in the west anyway - they stand out like sore thumbs, and many others feel uncomfortable in their presence. And are they really exercising free will, or internalizing oppression?

I guess I have to come down on the side of treating all women as autonomous human beings, and letting them make their own decisions even if the decisions are ones I disagree with and I'm not totally sure those decisions are made freely. Anything else is patronizing.

But at the same time, there are situations as I've mentioned above where it's legitimate to impose restrictions. It's not a case of "Ban the Burqa" but rather, if you choose to obliterate your identity in public, that's your right, and here are the consequences of your choice that you'll have to live with.

To sum up, I believe that we should make every effort to ensure that women do in fact have a choice. We should be concerned about attitudes they may have learned at home that women are only worth half as much as men. We should try to counteract such attitudes in public schools, and we should take a hard look at Islamic schools that try to cocoon Muslim immigrants as much as possible to prevent them from being affected by secular and humanist attitudes in western countries.

Finally, we should recognize that it's not all-or-nothing. Some women will choose breasts, some the burqa, and most will fall in between. The goal should not be to force a particular outcome but to maximize every individual's choice and opportunity!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Bridge Too Far?

The Great Atheist Schism, which began with a trivial event in an elevator, has been dragging on for almost two years now. Since then we've seen countless other relatively minor incidents - T-shirt-gate, Camera-on-a-stick-gate, off-the-cuff remarks by Michael Shermer and various other people - eagerly seized on, distorted, and exploited by the Atheism-plus axis to further a narrative that the atheist and skeptic movements are overrun with vast hordes of misogynistic, rapist or rape-supporting "MRA's". Sadly, a smal number of people on the other side have taken the bait and have responded with crude and occasionally threatening comments, adding more fuel to the fire.

Let me make it clear that I condemn threats and harassment, regardless of which side originates them. I am saddened to see the movement so bitterly divided, especially at a time when religious extremists both in the US and around the world are redoubling their efforts to roll back the rights of women and gays, and impose theocracy.

I also want to state the I mostly agree with the claimed goals of Atheism-plus. After all, what reasonable person doesn't support equal rights and respect for women and minorities? So far, however, I haven't seen Atheism-plus achieve or even attempt anything concrete and useful towards these goals, apart from the ill-considered and short-lived "A+ Scribe" which quickly collapsed in a fit of butt-hurt and pointless squabbling.

I can't help thinking that there is something deeply cynical about the Atheism-plus supporters wrapping themselves in the cloak of social justice as though to imply that everyone who doesn't march in ideological lockstep with them is a woman-hater, a homophobe and what not. For those of us who've broken free of the tribalistic, black-and-white thinking of the religion in which we were indoctrinated as children, it's disappointing to see the same mentality emerging from our own ranks.

What I find even more disturbing is the uncritical group-think and frenzied suppression of debate in every forum controlled by Atheism-plus. This is clearly incompatible with skepticism and freethought. And a huge portion of the controversy seems to be about settling old scores rather than having anything to do with principles.

I gather there is a long history of bad blood between Jen McCreight and Abbie Smith, and likewise between Rebecca Watson and several other individuals. I don't know the details, and I don't want to know. All I'm saying is that personal animosity is a poor basis for a social movement.

I appreciate that some people, notably Mick Nugent, are trying to bridge the divide and promote dialogue. Of all the people who identify with or lean toward Atheism-plus, he strikes me as the most honorable, decent and fair-minded.

However, it's clear that Myers, Watson, Carrier and company are determined to burn as many bridges as possible, and alienate as many allies as possible. If you're not totally ideologically pure in their eyes, you must be mindlessly witch-hunted and declared a pariah and unperson until the end of time. I really question whether it's possible, let alone desirable, to build bridges with fanatics who have such contempt for the values that I regard as vital to the secular movement. ("Freeze peach"? Seriously?)

Look at the treatment meted out to people like EllenBeth Wachs and Julian Francisco. They were staunch allies of A-plus, but the instant they showed any signs of thinking for themselves, they had to be dogpiled on, destroyed, and hounded out of the plus-o-sphere.

Mick Nugent's initiative, well-meaning as it is, is doomed to failure because the A-plus leaders have no interest whatsoever in reaching out honestly and in good faith to anyone who isn't already marching in lockstep with them. Blinded by their fanatical zeal, they imagine they have nothing to learn from anyone else and no reason to listen. Their attitude could be summed up as: "Fuck civility! We are Oppressed Victims (TM), and we demand the right to scream and shout non-stop about how much we're being silenced! Everyone else is an oppressor who should just shut up and listen. That's what we mean by dialogue!"

At this point, I have concluded that the best way forward is to ignore Atheism-plus and leave it behind. It is definitely on the losing side of the trends. More and more people are turned off by the constant juvenile drama created by the likes of Ophelia Benson and the Skepchicks, and the blatant hypocrisy, double standards and dishonesty shown by Myers.

Eventually Atheism-plus will simply fade away, or more likely, collapse in a final meltdown of butt-hurt. Hopefully the rest of us will learn something from the whole fiasco. We'll learn to be a little bit more sensitive to the concerns of women, and work productively with those who are more interested in solving problems than scoring rhetorical points against a hated enemy. We'll realize that we must always be on guard against groupthink, tribalism and dogma, even within our own ranks. And hopefully we'll all loosen up and laugh at silly jokes about dongles, when it's obvious that no harm is intended by anyone towards anyone else.

The fifteen mintues are over. Athesim-plus is a movement whose time has come - and gone!