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!


  1. Perhaps this is my biggest blind spot with regards to the FTBullies, I couldn't even imagine wasting the time and money to attend one of these conferences.


    Well, male right's advocates did not like THIS t-shirt and had it pulled... so...... whatever.

    1. Are you seriously telling me a shirt that overtly promotes violence against boys is morally equivalent to Harriet Hall's shirt?