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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Victims, skeptics, and politics, oh my

Jason Thibeault at Lousy Canuck has an interesting post up today on what he calls "hyper-skepticism" with regard to sexual harassment. What he's referring to is the practice, when such harassment is described, of demanding unusual and unreasonable amounts of evidence for it or else denying that it happened. I say "unusual and unreasonable" because, as Thibeault points out, extraordinary claims may require extraordinary evidence but sexual harassment is not extraordinary. It is, actually and unfortunately, quite ordinary indeed. Not normal or acceptable, but common. It is also something rather hard to prove unless it happens in front of witnesses. I excoriated vagueness in accusations in my last post, but being vague when alleging harassment can be a good idea for the safety of both accuser and accused. For the accuser, because as we've seen all too clearly the backlash from people who sympathize with the accused can be immediate and severe. For the accused, because when someone is making a hard-to-prove statement of wrongdoing on your part it's better if they're not naming you directly!

Rebecca Watson has been raked over the coals again and again for not naming the person who propositioned her in an elevator at 4am, but I'm glad that she didn't-- for his sake. What he did was creepy but not a crime, and I'm sure that he would have received an inordinate amount of grief, if his identity had been revealed, by well-meaning vigilantes who would consider it their business to shame him on Watson's behalf. Yes, being non-specific about the person she was accusing made it easier for Watson to have lied, if she so desired. She could have, conceivably, made the whole thing up. But let's remember that this was originally an anecdote tacked on the end of a video about various topics, accompanied by a simple request: "Guys, don't do that." It was not part of some manifesto declaring that freethought conferences are places women should avoid, nor was it a police report. Generally speaking, the more serious an allegation is, the more specific it should be. Right? Watson's description of the behavior she found objectionable was quite specific because her goal was to identify creepy behavior and encourage other people not to engage in it. It didn't need to be more specific than that, however, because the behavior she was describing stopped at "creepy." Creepy is bad, but it's not the end of the world, either for the creeper or for the person who has to endure him/her. But let there be no mistake, every time someone mentions what she (almost always "she") believes to be creepy behavior at a conference, a number of someones can be counted upon to rise up in defense of the creeper. I'm pretty sure at this point that someone could describe a stranger walking up and grabbing both of her breasts and squeezing, and somebody would reply "I can't believe you were bothered by that! You should be flattered! Feminist cunt."

Let's go back to that word, actually-- not "cunt" (I don't have the patience to discuss that right now) but "feminist." One of the things I didn't particularly like about Thibault's post, and that I am seeing all over the place, is that DJ Grothe has a problem with feminists. Thibault's post reads
When the conversation was not going his way, DJ made some very pointed remarks about specific women who’ve worked on the problem of harassment before; including some women who had taken him personally to task for attacking feminists as contra the skeptical movement, and defending some rather indefensible folks (including the Epstein/Krauss flap) in the past.
Did he, in fact, "attack feminists as contra the skeptical movement"? That link goes to an entry on Stephanie Zvan's blog Almost Diamonds, which quotes Grothe saying
This will be my last post on this topic. I’ll go back to believing what I have believed for a while now about some of these atheist blogs, now yours included: that fomenting movement controversy often seems to be prized over honest and sincere argument, that some folks are too quick to vilify and engage in destructive in-group/out-group thinking, that these online communities are exclusive rather than inclusive, and that unfortunately as a whole, the feminist and atheist blogospheres often operate quite separately from and counter the growing skeptical movement working to combat unreason and harmful pseudoscience in society.  
Answer: Nope. Just like he didn't say that feminists, or women skeptics, are the reason that fewer women are planning to attend TAM this year. These distinctions are important. If it's wrong to blame "feminists" for such things, it is also wrong to take umbrage on behalf of feminists in general when feminists in general have not been blamed. It assumes that everyone who is a feminist agrees with your particular brand, which is never a good thing to assume. Now, Grothe might have a problem with feminists in general, or more accurately what he perceives feminists to be. But that quote doesn't justify saying so. I certainly don't think that Grothe has a problem with atheists in general, considering that he is one. I'm a feminist-- a feminist blogger, even-- and could be the author of the above quote without accusing myself of countering the skeptical movement. I might be, if I were as exasperated at Grothe clearly was. He was certainly correct that atheism is not skepticism is not feminism, and it's easily possible for a blogger writing in service of one to  counter the interests of another. Whether this happens "often" is difficult to evaluate.

Another worrisome message that I have seen repeated, over and over, is that any judgment of how a victim of sexual harassment reacts to such harassment is wrong and constitutes victim-blaming. This is generally made in response to "hyper-skeptics" (still not sure I'm a fan of that word-- it implies that the problem is an over-abundance of skepticism, when really it's highly selective skepticism) who declare that women who don't report sexual harassment must not have actually felt harassed. This is a silly thing to say on the face of it, but even moreso given that most skepticism conferences haven't had policies on sexual harassment until this whole dust-up happened, and TAM's was established last year because of Watson's experience. So reporting these incidents hasn't really been an option, and Jen McCreight has an extensive post about risks to the victim that encourage her to be silent, vague, or anonymous. However, that does not mean that any reaction by the victim should be considered beyond reproach, and it doesn't mean that Grothe should have known about harassment cases weren't reported and weren't mentioned in the survey conducted to find out how welcome people felt at TAM last year. After the topic of sexual harassment at skeptic conferences was tossed around post-Women in Secularism conference and some very stupid people decided that Zvan, McCreight, and Greta Christina are the new feminist Taliban determined to erase the very mention of sexuality from any freethought conference henceforth (no, I'm not kidding), Zvan told conference organizers that those who don't have one should make a sexual harassment policy already, which seems eminently sensible and not at all Taliban-ish to me. However, as noted TAM did have such a policy already, unlike the apparently half dozen conferences who have created their own in response to this discussion.

If sexual harassment occurs at atheist and skeptic events-- and clearly it does-- it's a problem that deserves attention. But it's not an enormous problem, and it sure isn't somehow a particular concern for such events as opposed to any other gathering of men and women. The problem is not that sexual harassment is rampant at skeptical conferences and DJ Grothe doesn't care and refuses to do anything about it. The problem is that some people for whom feminism and skepticism are both big concerns (which should describe all skeptics, but sadly it doesn't), have probably unintentionally made it sound as if it's an enormous problem and also characteristic of skeptic conferences, which provoked the organizer of one such event to, without real evidence, accused these people of contributing to the very problem they fight on a daily basis-- under/misrepresentation of women in skepticism.

So you can see why everybody's pissed off.

I'll just end by linking back to this very important reminder about causes and egos.

Oh, and to this comment, just posted, from Grothe to Watson. I am not quite sure why Grothe so often posts extensive and important messages to people in comment sections on blogs and Facebook, where you'd think they stand a much higher chance of vanishing into the ether, but he clearly put a lot of thought into this one.

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