Women, Atheist Conferences, and You Know Where This is Going

24 05 2012

We’re approaching the the anniversary of that fun little incident involving Rebecca Watson, elevators, and coffee.  This time around though the issue is moving out of the elevators and right into the conference centres.  A buzz can be heard coming from the atheist community as a growing chorus of voices are starting to speak up about the behaviour of some men towards women at conferences.  The issue of sexual predation is a real one.

Speaking on a panel at CFI’s Women in Secularism conference, Jen McCreight made mention of how people have been approaching her behind the scenes to warn her to stay away from certain male speakers at conferences who have been known to behave in problematic ways towards women.

Stephanie Zvan writes:

Right now, though, I’m going to talk about something that happened almost outside the conference. It had its genesis on stage, when Jen McCreight mentioned that, when she started speaking at conferences, multiple people contacted her behind the scenes to tell her which male speakers she should steer clear of.

That this is going on should be a concern.  The fact that some have observed behaviour in male speakers that is bad enough that it warrants giving warnings about them should make you stop and ask, “what is going on?”  Inevitably, this has turned into an issue of name and shame.  Should we be calling people out on their behaviour in public, or do we pull them aside and say, “Hey, look, listen your behaviour, it has some of us concerned”? (edit to add a quote from an AAFW member)

Atheism isn’t a cult. We don’t need to put group togetherness above all else. Name ‘em. Shame ‘em. We need to make sure that shit like this isn’t tolerated, and whispering secrets to warn people one by one of certain individuals doesn’t do much to resolve the problem. Better than nothing, sure, but repeat offenders need to be called out.

What do the readers think about this one?  Sound off in the comments as I’m not sure which way I lean.  I think it would vary by the nature of the comments and behaviour.  Perhaps you start with the private warnings but if the person does it again and again then maybe the pressure of the public hammer needs to be brought down.

Zvan does bring up a good objection to the name and shame idea when she reminds us of what happened to Rebecca Watson when she spoke out publicly on Youtube (and the guy wasn’t even named).  Then there was the explosion that resulted when Watson called out a student blogger for a blog article she wrote.  A year might as well be a life-time in the blogging world so I think most of the negativity from that has subsided but it still brings back nasty memories of arguments that quickly spiraled out of control and became a barrage of insults more than anything else.   So if we are going to name names we better learn to tread with extreme caution.

Another point that should be addressed will be the likely group of people who say, “well this isn’t such a big deal” or “we should be objective and skeptical about this!”  Zvan offers up this to address such objections:

Q: Do famous atheist speakers really act like assholes to women?

A: Yes.

Q: Really?!

A: I said, “Yes.” I’ve experienced some of it, in front of witnesses. I’ve talked to other women who’ve experienced it personally. I’ve talked to conference organizers who have strategies for minimizing the damage when they have to invite one of these men to one of their conferences.

Also, did you just express “skepticism” over this? It’s a completely uncontroversial statement. Unaccetable gendered behavior exists. Our movement is not immune. Men don’t become immune to bad behavior just because people like how they speak or write or organize. Yes, it happens.

Q: But it’s never happened to me!

A: Now we’re getting out of the realm of questions. This will be the last of that. But, to your point, this may sound like a silly question, but are you a guy? If you are, you’re not likely to experience gendered misbehavior from another guy. Let that sink in for a bit.

Not male? Well, there are a couple of things to consider. If you flatter or lightly flirt with these guys, you’ll miss the kind of behavior that happens when they don’t get their way. If you interacted with lots of other people around, you’ve seen their more public faces. Beyond that, not every jerk can or will be a jerk to every person.

Q: But–

A: Shhh. Questions.

“Our movement is not immune”  That is the key message to take away from this excerpt.   I’ve witnessed people who try to reject the idea that the problem exists by saying that we need to do some sort of study to examine the rate of incidences in order to state that this is a problem.  Basically, an attempt to crunch social interactions down into lab-size. Understand this, we are not saying the problem in the atheist community is worse than the general community.  We are saying that the atheist community is part of that general community and that problems that infect the general group will be contracted by the atheist group.  When you have women in the community stating that they’ve witnessed this problem behaviour the proper response is not, “need more data.”

You should also consider Greta Christina’s   comments:

Compare, on the one hand, the problem of a hostile environment in which many women don’t feel welcome or safe in a community, because of a climate that tolerates sexual predation, or that looks the other way when it happens.

Compare, on the other hand, the problem that some women who don’t want to seem too eager won’t get laid when they might otherwise — and that some men who aren’t persistent in the face of rejection won’t get laid when they might otherwise.

Which do you think is the bigger problem?

Later on the same day that Christina made that post, someone in the comment thread had this appalingly stupid and insulting comment that illustrates the problem we are facing perfectly:

“I suspect it’s only ugly women who complain of the environment they find themselves in. It is simply a marker of your typical feminists mental illness.”

These sort of comments were prevalent around the height of the Rebecca Watson controversy.  I’d see blog posts that linked to videos criticizing Watson with words such as “hot”, “sexy”, “attractive” before “girl” talks about sexism.  But people would refer to Watson and her supporters as “ugly” and other variations (Pre-empt: Yes, I’m well aware that this does not characterize everyone that disagreed/disagrees with Watson and that there are those who would make arguments based on actual ideas.  I’m sure that those who disagreed with Watson were also referred to as “ugly”).  Using a woman’s physical appearance as a way to criticize is to ensure that she, “can’t win.”

Jen McCreight wrote on Twitter:

“I like how I’ve been attacked for being pretty and for being ugly. You can’t win as a woman, can you?”

Of course, it shouldn’t matter.  The discussion and debate should be on the ideas. As Greta Christina says, “The point isn’t that I’m not ugly. The point is that it shouldn’t matter.”  So before you go ahead and make any comments about physical appearances playing a factor in the opinion of a woman, stop and think.  Then delete your comment and save yourself from speaking like a fool.

Then we have the insult towards people who suffer from mental illness.  Nevermind that the statement doesn’t even make sense, ugly women complain therefore, mentally ill?  The response should again be, “So what?”  So what if someone who voices an opinion that you find disagreeable has a mental illness?  It’s a personal attack, one that tries to discredit the opinion without actually properly debating it.

Despite how heated discussions on this issue tend to get in our community, they do need to happen.  I hope to see that discussion happening in comment threads and if you have read this far then I hope I’ve been clear on some of the “don’ts” for such a conversation.  It will help it in being more civil and insightful.

Here are more links on the issue that are useful to read:

http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2012/05/22/making-it-safer-in-the-meantime/

http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2012/05/22/flirting-sex-and-lines/ (I want to give JT a hug.  Especially considering his speaking out on mental health)


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2 responses

25 05 2012
Harrison Gross

Sigh. I just wish this stuff could not happen. It really makes me sad.

15 04 2013
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