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TAM and CEAC, 21 June 2012

First, some thoughts on a controversy within the liberal-atheist community, and then some CEAC.


First, if you're looking for a complete judgement on this, I'm not going to be able to provide it. I'm still trying to figure out what's going on to some extent, but I provide the framework of analysis that I'd parameterise with facts to reach a conclusion, as well as some basic facts.

Harassment of women at conferences is a problem in many communities, from the technical to advocacy/philosophy groups. Awareness of it has been on the rise, and some conferences have (admirably, IMO) taken steps to deal with it, reminding people that inappropriate behaviour will get people the boot from the conference. There are always nuances in this; what is inappropriate? People are still trying to spell that out; so long as things follow what I'd call a reflective principle (behaviour that is appropriate for someone of one gender is not inappropriate for the other) and the burdens imposed don't seem excessive, I'm comfortable with such limits (given that conferences are of limited duration; we'd need to think a lot harder and balance more interests for something longer-lasting). Generally I'd expect that:

  • Physical or emotional manipulation to pressure someone into sexual activity is not acceptable
  • Making normative claims about differing values of either gender or of the various races are not acceptable
  • Flirting in cramped quarters or otherwise threatening environments, continued without any reasonable belief that the flirting is being returned or when overt, is highly uncool and should probably be very sternly warned against.
  • It is at least not very classy to have present people at (most kinds of) conferences whose role there is to provide sex appeal for a product; I'd be comfortable with bans of this sort but I don't consider them mandatory
  • It is at least not very classy to have conference material that presents people in a sexual light (when the presentation is not tied to relevant aesthetics) for most kinds of conferences, and doing so selectively (showing one gender and not the other) risks alienation. I am comfortable with bans on this but I don't consider them mandatory.
Anyhow, that's just a sketch. There are probably more things worth saying on that front. Some of these led to incidents (including something called 「Elevatorgate」, where a well-known atheist feminist blogger, 「Rebecca Watson」, was flirted with (perhaps? hard to know from the outside if it was flirting) on an elevator, remarked how uncomfortable it made her on her blog, was criticised for this by a much more prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, and this led to a lot of heated commentary back-and-forth. Excerpts nabbed from one summary site:

  • Rwatson: So I walked to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me, and said, "Don't take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?" Um, just a word to the wise, here, guys? Don't do that. Um, you know, I don't really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I'll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4 a.m., in a hotel elevator with you--just you--and don't invite me back to your hotel room right after I've finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.
  • Dawkins: The man in the elevator didn't physically touch her, didn't attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn't even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

I (probably) don't agree with RWatson's stance, but I don't think what she said was that unreasonable. I occasionally have been invited to chat with people in their rooms using similar language at conferences (sometimes it was meant as sexual, sometimes not, and I actually have never taken any of them up on it, but I have had good conversations over tea in the lobby occasionally). If she doesn't want it, that's fine. I don't resent having ever been asked that way (for either purpose), but I wouldn't tell others not to ask. I do regret that when people were not careful with language and don't respect each other's feelings, even when they disagree with them, escalation turns things really ugly (and it doesn't help at all when there are some people out there who hide behind anonymity and who are all-too-eager to actually threaten women for expressing their concerns on these matters).

The TAM stuff relates to how DJ Groethe, yet another prominent atheist, expressed that the way some people are talking about harassment at TAM is driving people away, and that he apparently has seen misinformation on that front driving down participation of women in TAM. Rebecca responds that this is blaming the victim, and things took off from there.

By taking off, I mean that some women are using this to attack the kind of feminist that Rebecca Watson is, there are yet more anonymous schmucks on blogs who are actually making threats of violence against Rebecca (and others who talk on the issue), a fair number of people are either soured on Rebecca or TAM or both, and so on.

From reading the dialogue, I think both DJ and Rebecca make good points, but they're talking past each other. A lot of the later discussion is like that too; people are so eager to be arguing against a certain type of enemy that they assume anyone they're arguing with *is* that kind of enemy and they find ways to characterise the person they're replying to in the least charitable and usually least accurate way possible.

I haven't followed up on this as much as I might've; everyone's chimed in from all sorts of perspectives.

What I really would like to do is to mediate this kind of mess; to get the relevant people in a room together and to have a carefully structured conversation to get people actually talking to the real other people present, rather than partly-imagined foes. This wouldn't guarantee agreement, but it at least would help us be sure that there's substance (rather than a personality conflict or disagreements over phrasing) to any disagreement that exists.

CEAC stuff:

  • Radicals in SF to protest how SF's Gay Pride Parade is done, particularly sponsorship. I think they have a point, but I'm not sure if this is the right way to make it. Maybe it is? Still thinking about this, and I'd like to know more. I'm not always entirely friendly to Queer/Trans activism (not usually entirely opposed either, it depends), and this seems to come from pretty radical parts. Much earlier in life I was soured by some experiences with some of the most radical parts of that community in Columbus (some groups did some things that made pretty much everyone else pissed off at them, ruining marches run by not-as-radical or differently-radical groups, harassing people, etc). I'm not really sure what these folks have planned for SF.
  • Montana is hoping to keep its existing strong laws against corporate influence over politics, which may provoke another Supreme Court evaluation of the Citizens United ruling. I wouldn't count on it, but it'd be nice.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood won the most recent presidential elections in Egypt, the final elections being a truly disappointing race between a Mubarak crony and the MB candidate (the liberal candidate being knocked out of the running earlier). The Egyptian Judiciary subsequently dissolved parliament (because of probably-legitimate concerns over how elections had been carried out; some were simple-majority, and some were through other methods, but with suspicious timing and uncertain prudence), and the military took steps to greatly weaken the president and assert control over the process to draft a new Constitution. All this leaves me uncertain whom to root for; I might lean towards the military because I feel that allowing sharification (even in the moderate form the MB would do) is unacceptable; in my opinion the MB, just like the Salafists, should not have been qualified to run for office. I'm not a fan of what the regime did when it was clinging to power though, and it's really hard for me to be comfortable with this stance.
  • Venezuela is mad about a rock that some people have silly beliefs about that nontheless may have been taken from the country in an ugly way. It opens an interesting question: when previous governments make a bad decision, how fair is it to consider that final? Is it acceptable/appropriate/binding to make a demand for the return of things like this?
  • Russia's continued shipment of arms to the Syrian government is seeing some counterpush, and it appears that persistent diplomacy by Clinton may be helping to move the Russian position away from unqualified support of the Syrian regime.
The continued slaughter in Syria is one of the things I'm pretty stressed about nowadays, even though I am utterly impotent to affect it in any significant way. I hope for a swift defeat of the Assad regime and that something reasonable (that will not end up being a puppet of western financial or political interests) replaces it.