All This Talk of Harassment Is Harassing Me!
A few months ago my daughter Abby, who is 9, was leaving school when a slightly older boy she knew started following her, going "wooo wooo" and making grabbing or cupping gestures at her body. Abby instructed him to stop, he didn't, and she turned around, hauled off and socked him. He stopped. Abby's strictly a one-warning type of girl.
My wife and I explained to Abby that she should report behavior like that to us or the school, and that she has a right to resist dipshit boy behavior [not my exact words]. We cautioned that it's generally not the best policy to punch boys, rotating her upper body and leaning in with her shoulder to get weight into it and leading with the heel of her hand into a vulnerable spot.
It's really not practical for women to go around punching men every time a man acts like a dipshit in that manner. Chaos would ensue. Therefore, it's probably a good thing that women (and men who find dipshit behavior unacceptable) react by calling out bad behavior, discussing it, and encouraging the community to recognize it as unacceptable. This is the sort of thing the marketplace of ideas is for.
But society is made up of humans, and humans have hot-button topics. Race is one of them. How women are, or ought to be, treated is another. Some people just lose their shit completely when you raise these topics.
This is true even among people who define themselves as rational thinkers — like self-described skeptics.
I am referring to the current contretemps in the online skeptic community regarding sexual harassment at skeptic conventions.
Now, conventions aren't known for well-adjusted behavior to begin with. From what I've seen, this is particularly true of subculture conventions. I first noted this at role playing game conventions in the early 1980s, where the overwhelming majority of males treated the few females like the apes in 2001 treated the monolith. This ethos continues; geek-culture conventions remain creepifying in many ways. But the trend seems to apply to more mundane conventions as well. From friends in positions of authority in various industries I learn of oh-God-call-the-insurance-company conduct by employees at conventions, and my occasional work litigating and training on sexual harassment issues exposes me to similar tales.
So it's no surprise to me that there is some amount of creepy conduct at skeptic conventions. This issue became a topic of widespread discussion when blogger Rebecca Watson posted a video about how a guy had hit on her while she was alone with him in an elevator late at night at a convention, citing the incident (without naming the guy) as an example of how not to act — a "guys, don't do that" message. I find the conduct she describes, in its context, self-evidently creepy, as do a number of women I've talked to, but opinions vary. Watson's message provoked derision and odd outrage, even leading purported rationalist Richard Dawkins to resort to the tired and ridiculous how-can-you-talk-about-that-when-there-are-children-suffering-in-Africa trope.
The skeptic pot has been simmering since then, and boiled over in the last few months with accusations and counter-accusations, demonstrating that the online skeptic community is susceptible to the same cultural tends as any other internet subgroup. Some skeptics are talking about harassment at conventions, and calling for anti-harassment policies and discussions about appropriate social norms. Though I don't agree with all of these people or everything they say, I find that discussion far less bizarre and off-putting than the response it has drawn in some quarters. The skeptics who have talked about harassment and called for responses to it have been derided as feminazis and totalitarians. Calling out behavior has been described as "bullying." Utterly typical online social behavior — argument by ridicule, cliquishness, defending friends — has been ascribed to something inherent and malevolent in "extreme feminism."
I am not a feminist. By that I mean that I am completely uninterested in whether or not I deserve the label "feminist" or "anti-feminist." I believe in the legal, formal, and social equality of men and women, I am interested in the ways that laws and social norms interfere with that equality, and I am open to discussion of approaches to changing laws and social norms. But I find discussions over what a "feminist" is or is not to be tedious wankery that accomplishes little of substance. I don't care for the deliberately jargon-laden approach of some academic feminists to discussions of important issues, and I'm annoyed by the sillier nomenclature disputes (and have been since I quit the Stanford Pro-Choice Alliance after a very solemn discussion of how it was imperative to call people "anti-choice" rather than "pro-life" or "anti-abortion.")
On the other hand, I am often astounded by the reaction to "feminism" (self-identified, or so identified by critics) or any discussion of sexual harassment. The reaction often seems wildly and disproportionately sensitive to criticism to a frankly disordered extent. I'm seeing that from both men and women in this debate over harassment at skeptic conventions. In fact I find the reactions more off-putting than the descriptions of harassment themselves. Take, as a recent example, this recent letter from Paula Kirby, which repeatedly calls her opponents "hysterical" (a loaded term that I would only use trollishly, belligerently, or satirically), defends terms like "feminazis" and "femistasi," refers to discussions of harassment as "totalitarian," refers to the "Sisterhood of the Oppressed" and "Approved Male Chorus," and generally acts like a 14-year-old flaming out upon being banned from a World of Warcraft subforum for comparing Orcs to various racial groups. Enraged by conduct by bloggers at Free Thought Blogs, Kirby created the hashtag #FTBullies, which turned out pretty much the way you're thinking it would.
I don't get it. I'm not saying that self-described feminists — or anyone else talking about sexual harassment — are always right. They're not. Sometimes they're perfectly silly. I'm saying that they are participating in a marketplace of ideas, and that responding to them with "your criticism breaks the marketplace of ideas" or "your criticism is tyrannical" tropes is unserious and embarrassing. I sometimes write things that some people think are sexist or offensive. I own them. If someone calls me out on them, I will apologize if I think it is appropriate, or refute the accusation if appropriate, or shrug and move on, possibly with a lol u mad bro. What I will not to is attempt to portray myself as some sort of victim of bullying and censorship — as if someone had sued me, or tried to get me arrested, or physically attacked me. People hissed at me for non-liberal views in college, people sure as hell hissed at me in law school, and here I still stand, not a victim.
Portraying criticism — even wrong-headed or unfair criticism — as "bullying" and "totalitarian" — is a whine that is not worthy of our respect. It encourages ignorance about the fundamental nature of free speech and the marketplace of ideas. There is no generalized right to be free of offense. But there's also no right to be free of the words "that's offensive." Please. Even if you don't respect the people you disagree with, have some self-respect.
Edit: For an additional example of the sort of cringeworthy silliness I am talking about, consider this:
Bullying is persistent unwelcome behavior, mostly using unwarranted or invalid criticism, nit-picking, fault-finding, also exclusion, shunning, being singled out and treated differently, being shouted at, humiliated, excessive monitoring, having verbal and written warnings imposed, and much more.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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