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Addressing some things Thunderf00t definitely actually said

2012/06/25

As those of you who follow the blog may know, a few days ago, I embarrassed myself by criticizing Thunderf00t for things I was pretty sure he said, but could find no direct evidence of and inferences about what he meant when he said something. This was unfair and ineffective if I wanted to actually show anyone that I had a point instead of venting. Now that he’s made his first real post on Freethought Blogs, I think the issue deserves a second look where I address things that he definitely really said. This will require a lot of background for those of you who don’t read the corner of the blogosphere I do. More below the fold.

Dana Hunter gives a good overview of the harassment problem that’s been burning up the Interwebs lately here. Jason Thibeault gives a timeline of the major events. Ashley Miller explains what the point of all this is. Teal Deer version: a few months ago, a few women in the atheist blogosphere said there had been a problem with harassment at the atheist conventions. This is actually two related, but distinct issues: people being harassed by speakers and people being harassed by other attendees. DJ Grothe, president of the James Randi Foundation,weighed in and said they can’t very well do anything about harassment if people wait until after the The Amaz!ng Meeting (their con) and complain on the Internet instead of reporting it to them when it happened. The complaints were creating an impression that that the problem was much bigger than it really was and women’s registration was way down over the previous year in consequence. They had never actually received a harassment complaint. A bunch of other bloggers pointed out that he had gotten complaints. Several people came forward with specific incidents they had reported to him. You can read about one here and another here. These apparently don’t count because they weren’t “officially” reported or weren’t harassment or something. People pointed out maybe people would report to the organizers if it were clear what the official policy was, but there isn’t one beyond that they reserve the right to ask people to leave if they cause trouble. This gives no indication who to report to when there is a problem and doesn’t tell staff what to do if they get such a report. Also, there’s been a big history of women getting pilloried for coming forward. Many bloggers pushed for an official written policy and DJ caught a lot of heat for not committing to implementing one and apparent goalpost-moving. Ophelia Benson got some vague threats for speaking out on the issue and pulled out of speaking at the next TAM. Greta commented on why we have to take these seriously. I think that brings us up to date on everything.

This brings me to Thunderf00t’s post on the issue. Before I get into my analysis, I wanted to call attention to his rhetorical strategy here. He’s arguing against a position, but gives no links, no quotes and names no names. This is usually a strong indicator that you’re in for a big straw man and this is no exception. It’s easy to make your opponents look ridiculous when your audience only gets your word for what exactly it is that they are saying. For any position, it’s fairly easy to find someone who made an indefensible argument or at least make up a bad argument. I could probably name half a dozen people I’m embarrassed to agree with about any issue I have a position on.

For instance, 9/11 conspiracy theorists will have you believe that any who thinks the World Trade Center was brought down by a terrorist attack using planes believes everything the government tells them. While it would be a bad idea to take the government’s word for everything, that is not the only reason to believe the “official story.” In fact, many people think there was a genuine terrorist attack on 9/11 and the government tried to cover up their incompetence in failing to prevent it. (This is a terrible oversimplification, but fine for illustrative purposes.) If you poke through all the links and comments, you can find people who said some ridiculous or unsupportable things. For instance, the idea that no one should have sex at a conference is unrealistic and if there’s a good reason to think the JREF board wants harassment instead of just being more concerned about the publicity and terrible at communicating, I have yet to see it. However, this is not the main thrust of most of the posts on the topic and Thunderf00t fails to address the main arguments made. In fact, it’s the other way around. All of his arguments were already addressed because various readers also made them. However, you wouldn’t know any of this from his zero-context commentary. In the interest of fairness, I shall quote his article in full. On to what he actually wrote:

I’ve been around on the internets a LONNNG time, and its been my experience that the more people use terms like MISOGYNIST, RACIST, BIGOT and FEMINAZI, the less valid their arguments are likely to be.  It’s kinda obvious in many ways, a good argument stands on its merits, not on how many times you can call someone a misogynist, and if you had a worthwhile argument, why not just present it, like so:

“Sexual Harassment at Conferences”.  –Lets nail some colors to the mast!

Yes, sometimes people do use accusations of bigotry instead of arguments. I’m sure you could find a few such people commenting on this issue if you looked hard enough. However, there’s a big difference between evaluating someone’s behavior and speech and concluding they are a bigot and asserting as a way to dismiss their claims. Ideally, it’s an assertion that someone’s claims are based on irrational prejudice rather than rational evaluation of the evidence. More importantly, if you read through the commentary I linked above, you’ll see very few assertions that DJ or anyone else is a misogynist. The complaints are based on analysis of what he did and what he should have done and why he should have done that instead. A few people do speculate as to the reason for the considerable gap between the ideal and reality, but not most, and it isn’t the crux of the argument.

Thunderf00t’s choice of terms is revealing. His implication is that we all know “feminazi” is a bad word, so we shouldn’t call anyone a “racist,” “misogynist” or “bigot,” either. I feel like I’m on Sesame Street playing that game where there are four things and one of them doesn’t belong. “Feminazi” is a term made up for purposes of being inflammatory. Yes, some women lay claim to the term “feminist” and are generally authoritarian nogoodnicks, but the term is a straight Godwin meant to discredit feminists without addressing them. In practice, it gets used to describe people like Sandra Fluke, not the ones who accuse strippers of being gender-traitors. The latter three words are the closest we have to neutral descriptive terms of attitudes that are socially unacceptable in an identifiable form. He could have just as easily said we shouldn’t call people criminal or incompetent. Those also carry strong social implications, but are ultimately descriptions of demonstrable behavior. If he had some specific examples of people making unfair accusations, this would be a fair issue to address, but he doesn’t have specific examples of anything.

!!!!Accurate assessment of a problem is the first step towards moving towards an appropriate solution!!!!

Now first let me say from a strategically point of view sexual harassment at conferences really is a non-issue (and if reading that has just pushed some buttons, I want you to calmly unplug those emotions and put them in a box, then take a deep breath, relax and read the rest of this reasoned argument)… breathing calmly yet? good!, then we can continue….

The not-so-subtle implication here is that anyone who disagrees is just being emotional and not making a rational assessment of the facts like him. This is a classic way of not taking women seriously. In fact, several people comment on it in the various threads on this issue.

…… indeed to a large degree the conference scene is mostly redundant.  A large conference is a couple of thousand people.  In terms of viewership, a mediocre channel such as mine would pull in several tens of thousands of views for a video.  Then of course many of these lectures are repeated from conference to conference, and virtually all of them are available online.  Put simply if your primary focus is on the conference scene, then in the internet age, it’s probably misplaced.  Further it’s my personal experience that sexual harassment affects only a very significant minority of attendees.  Indeed I personally know prominent women who went to TAM last year who said from a harassment point of view, it was the cleanest TAM yet (battle fought and game won?).  So the full scope of the problem is a minority of a  minority.  As such do you really think this is the priority target where you will get best bang for your buck in terms of focusing hard won resources, or focusing the attention of the online community?
Now this is not to say that conferences are obsolete (they clearly still have functional roles to play), or that sexual harassment isn’t a bad thing. Sure it exists, I’ve seen it, although it seems to me that such acts overwhelming happen in the bars outside the conference.  I’ve seen some of this first hand, and was happy to help try to resolve the matter in an appropriate and mature fashion.  My personal estimate would be, of the things that aren’t just people being social clutzs, something like 1 guy in 100-1000 (and maybe the odd girl too!) causes almost all of the problems.  My straw poll estimate from half a dozen such meetings is that the ‘harassment’ that goes on in the bars at such meetings is little different from that you would find in practically any other bar in the country.

Further a female friend of mine who repeatedly attends many such events has informed me that the most recent TAM was the best ever in this fashion.

*THIS REALLY ISN’T A BIG PROBLEM*

If he isn’t saying conferences are obsolete, then what’s the point of down-playing their importance? If they are important enough to do at all, I would think they are important enough to do correctly. He certainly doesn’t think his considerable Internet viewership makes it unnecessary for him to attend conferences. He spoke at the Texas Freethought Convention recently and includes a picture from a conference in this very post. Clearly, people think they are worth having or they wouldn’t happen. In fact, The Amaz!ng Meeting only started in 2003, well into the Internet age. A lot of the appeal of conferences is that you get to meet people IRL that you know on the Internet. (This is one of the reasons it’s unrealistic to say that people shouldn’t have sex there.) I’d say the Internet is actually driving the demand for these things by building the networks that they capitalize on and making it far easier to publicize them. Besides, pick any post I link to above and read the comments. Harassment happens online far more, so the Internet is not helping his case.

Yes, some people are socially inept and make people uncomfortable. However, pointing this out this does not solve the problem. If you read the specific allegations, it really defies credulity that anyone could not know better in many cases. Who doesn’t know that you aren’t supposed to follow women around and demand/beg for sex after being repeatedly told “no”? Some harassers use this idea to create plausible deniability to avoid any consequences if someone does dare step forward. Besides, if people are feeling like they are being harassed, the conference has a problem whether the alleged harassers are doing it intentionally or just so socially maladjusted as to not know any better. The distinction is important when it comes to deciding how to prevent the problem and how to deal with it when it happens, but that’s a question of how a harassment policy should be written and publicized, not whether it should exist. In fact, if there are a lot of guys out there who are completely blowing their chances with women because they don’t what they are doing and scaring all the ladies away, I would they would welcome some guidance on what not to do. It could be a tremendous boon for them.

Moreover, the claim that there’s relatively little harassment and most of it is just misunderstandings seems to be based on a single anecdote and a lot of speculation. His female friend may have just been lucky. Why should we believe Thunderf00t’s suppositions over the testimony of the dozens of women who have reported harassment? Do we have any reason to believe that only a minority of a minority are affected besides a flat assertion? Even if this were true, why should we dismiss minority problems? Atheists are a minority of a minority as well. Should we should up about disestablishment of religion since most of the population is indifferent or wants their religion to set public policy? It’s easy to say that a problem isn’t important when it doesn’t affect you.

Besides, no one claimed that a woman can’t walk from her room to the conference hall without getting groped three times. The claim is that it’s common enough to be a problem and the organizers could deal with it a lot more effectively than they have been. Also, women don’t have to be directly harassed to be affected. The steps they take to protect themselves from being a target can lessen their enjoyment of the conference, even if nothing happens. The threat of creepers affects how they can dress, where they can go unaccompanied and means they have to constantly watch their backs. This may seem unnecessary, but it’s not up to third parties to decide how big a deal a plausible risk is.

Straight shooter…. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em…. and this is my strategic assessment of the extent of the problem.

… and such problems can of course be dealt with quickly and discretely without spoiling the fun for everyone else (the modus operandi of most nightclubs).

So why the 50% drop in female attendance at TAM?

Well like most things its likely to be a mix of factors, but I can tell you there is a reason why nightclubs typically advertise themselves with a little subtext in the bottom left hand corner saying ‘management reserves the right to refuse admission’ and do not advertise themselves as:

(graphic of a nightclub sign with an sexual harassment policy as big as the club’s name)

Thunderf00t is engaging in a bit of hyperbole here, of course. He knows that no one wants to rename TAM to “The Amaz!ing Sexual-Harassment-Prevention Meeting.” Without the hyperbole, his point doesn’t hold up, though. For one, I don’t think that most people want TAM to have an atmosphere too much like a nightclub and I’m guessing that Thunderf00t has never actually worked in a nightclub. I have, though I worked in a stripping capacity and was not directly involved with the running of it. Nightclubs do have policies about harassment of customers and they brief the bouncers on them. Some clubs, including the one where I worked, have signs posted about expected customer behavior. Similarly, they have policies about preventing drunk driving and other bad situations the club could contribute to. Since bars are a lot smaller than conventions, it’s pretty clear who to complain to. At TAM, the closest thing they even have to bouncers is hotel security and their powers are considerably more limited. They also may not occur to people who aren’t used to conventions.

He’s also ignoring that there were plenty of attempts to deal with this in a low-key manner and it exploded onto the Internet because they weren’t effective. DJ could have had a quiet discussion with a few prominent blog ladies about what would be a good policy, but he didn’t do much, then complained about them on Facebook when they tried to make an issue of it. (TAM had not even been singled out at that point.) That was the main factor in getting him all this negative attention.

Because

1) The level of the warning suggests the issue is far more problematic than it is in reality.  I’ve heard talks at such conferences (from prominent activists in the community) that literally suggest that to merely turn up at such talks will get you rape threats etc etc.  (let me be honest, repeatedly publicizing rape threats from a troll simply shows a crass lack of personal judgment and an immaturity at dealing with the interwebs, rather than a secular community ridden with men looking to rape women at conferences).  Put simply the environment is widely being unrealistically portrayed as more hostile than it actually is.  If your goal is to encourage women to attend such events, highlighting troll comments as representative of the conduct at such conferences is both willfully reckless and counterproductive to such a cause.  Indeed it’s kind of self evident.  If these threats had even the remotest air of credibility, the ONLY appropriate course of action is to simply report the matter to the FBI and take it to its logical conclusion, and then drag their legally beaten carcass around the walls of Troy… you get the idea.  (and yeah, it’s what I would have done in the blink of an eye had I found such threats credible).

The biggest problem with this section is the clear implication that because harassment isn’t very common, if you do get harassed you shouldn’t talk about it as you’ll give people the impression that your experience was typical. People deserve and need support when bad things happen at conferences, regardless of how common they are. This is a conference about skepticism and is theoretically aimed at people more rational than average. I would hope potential attendees know an anecdote when they see one and don’t jump to conclusions. This whole argument is infantalizing the women who may wish to attend because it is predicated on the idea that Thunderf00t is better able to evaluate their interests than they are. If we followed this suggestion, it’s unclear how we would ever find out if there were a major problem because we’ll never know about harassment unless we witness it or we’re told about it.

No one else follows this strategy, or at least no one sensible. Cities don’t build unassuming police stations disguised as office buildings and keep all their police in plainclothes lest people see a police presence and assume they have a major crime problem. Some harassment will happen no matter what. I think everyone understands that. What makes people feel secure is knowing they have somewhere to turn if they do have a problem.

Thunderf00t is also being a hypocrite. He’s done a lot to publicize death threats he’s received from trolls. If he worried that he was giving a false impression that he was a lot more likely to be murdered than he really was, he never let on. See here for PZ’s coverage of one such incident. Go to his YouTube channel and do a search for “death threat” and you’ll find plenty more. No one ever fire-bombed his house or tried to shoot him at a convention, so why did he call attention to this non-issue instead of just reporting it to the FBI and keeping quiet in public? The truth is that it’s easy to ignore threats when it isn’t you being threatened and, as Greta explained in the link above, threats work to intimidate people into changing their behavior, even if the person who made it never intended to carry it out.

-Put simply, YES talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.

2) The VAST majority of people at these conferences are civil, honest, respectable folks.  Giving people a list of things they are and are not allowed to do in the bars in the evenings gives the impression that this is not a conference for grown-ups but an expensive and repressive day/night care where your every action will be vigilantly vetted for dis-approval by the conference organizers.  Put simply this sort of thing is a killjoy for the civil, honest respectable majority.  If I want to chew on some womans leg in a bar, I don’t want to have to consult the conference handbook to see if this classes as acceptable behavior!

(picture of him chewing on a woman’s leg at a bar)

It’s a bar….boys AND girls and have fun in bars!  Sure sometime people misjudge situations, and sure there will be a few bad apples (who usually, and quite rightly, get their actions addressed at some point).  But like I say, IT’S A BAR!! and those are the rules of engagement in bars, as the old saying goes, if you are gonna eat tuna, you gotta expect some bones!

Look, I’m no libertarian, but I frankly find the idea that a conference should be dictating to me what I am and am not allowed to do in a bar outside the conference as approaching the “WTF is wrong with you???” line.  Nor do I particularly care for the McCarthyism argument which would typically be advanced at this point of ‘only communists would oppose such rules’/ ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’.

No one has said that most people at cons are harassers. The problem is that it’s difficult to deal with the few who are. If she wants you to chew on her, it isn’t a problem. No one is trying to ban flirting. Or if someone is, they are in the minority. This isn’t the kind of behavior the complaints have been about. The issue is the guys who do such things without making sure it’s wanted. All the complaints I’ve read were about the conference proper, not about bars near the hotel. No one has suggested trying to control behavior at the bars. In short, his hypothetical here bears no resemblance to any incident that anyone has complained about. The woman in the picture didn’t go and report him or complain on Facebook about him, so that’s clearly not it and there’s no reason to assume that a policy would interfere with this behavior. If someone proposed a policy that would have this effect, he should point it out, but he seems to be making broad assumptions about any possible policy. Again, it’s easy to say that talking about harassment is a bigger problem than harassment when talk makes you feel uncomfortable and harassment doesn’t.

    In summary, is there ‘harassment’ at conference?  I’ve not really seen anything at conferences themselves, although in the bars elsewhere, yeah sure it goes on (although arguably not that different from any other bar in the country). –From half a dozen conferences, this alone gives a ball park figure of the extent of the problem.

It’s a lot easier to not notice harassment when you aren’t looking for it, are busy doing your own thing and somebody else is the one getting harassed. This argument presupposes that Thunderf00t would notice any harassment in his general vicinity, even though he was admittedly busy having fun and flirting with women at the bars and I’m sure he had things to do in the hotel as well. I don’t see any reason I should find his estimation of his abilities credible here.

    As for the actionable items, I see writing down policies then policing them as essentially unfit for intended purpose and an inefficient deployment of resources.  For the conference itself, this would seem an exercise in redundancy (you might as well have rules against theft, it would be exactly as valid, and likely see exactly the same usage (or does the lack of a theft policy suggest conferences tolerate kleptomania? Or is the absence of evidence for theft being endemic not evidence of absence?)). Put simply, typically the less bureaucratic paper work associated with these conferences the better for EVERYONE.  Less legal fees in getting them written, less overhead in getting everyone running the conference to know what the guidelines are and in getting the attendees to read them all (no point in having guidelines if no one knows what they are!)

If there were a lot of reported problems with theft, it would make sense to implement policies to prevent it. Comic Con does have this problem and gives advice in its handbook about how to avoid having your stuff stolen. Besides, the police can deal with theft. Sexual harassment can be a big problem without the harasser doing anything criminal, meaning the conference has to deal with it. This doesn’t mean hiring a team of lawyers to draft and vet the policy and some high-paid expert to implement it. Despite what he implies here, anti-harassment policies are common at other conferences. It wouldn’t take much to lift a policy from someone else and spend a few minutes briefing each staff member to make sure they know what to do if they get a report. You’d just have to expand the current policy about the convention reserving the right to remove people to a few paragraphs. I doubt you’d even need another page in the handbook. The hard work of developing a reasonable policy that protects attendees without being oppressive has already been done. Here’s a handy list.

In terms of enforcement ‘Management reserves the right to refuse admission’ is perfectly fit for purpose for enforcing the policy of ‘don’t be a jerk’.

That’s essentially what we have now. It hasn’t been working very well since it doesn’t say what to do if someone is a jerk and gives staff no indication where to draw the line. This is why harassment has been dealt with in a haphazard fashion so far. A few paragraphs ago, he said the problem is guys who are socially clueless and don’t know any better. If most harassers have no idea that they are being jerks, how is this helpful? You can’t have it both ways.

…and as for what happens in the bars elsewhere I really don’t see as falling within the remit of the conference organizers.

That does not however mean that nothing can be done.  I would go for the application of ‘soft power’.  Even if it’s not the direct concern of the conference, most of these things can (and should) be effectively addressed in a quiet, mature and social way, in a way that is eminently more fit for purpose (the more so if cooler heads prevail), but that’s a story for another day.

Any policy would be soft power. It’s not like the conference organizers can beat you up or put you in jail. The threat is being kicked out of the conference and/or publicly shamed. It would be a lot easier for the staff to be fair and consistent in how they deal with alleged harassers if they had some policy. And, as I said above, attempts to deal with things quietly and unofficially haven’t worked very well.

This whole article is based on misrepresenting and avoiding opposing views and  asking us to just accept his speculation and assertions over the lived experience of quite a few women because he is apparently more rational than they. This is what we on the internet call mansplaining. It’s isn’t rational and is based in a very egocentric, rather than objective, evaluation of the evidence. This is not a good start on a blog network dedicated to rationality. There’s nothing wrong with being a middle-class straight white guy. I’m a whitish, straightish guy myself. But if he’s going to talk about social issues, he should make sure he knows what he’s talking about. Otherwise, he should stick to science, where he’s fairly good.

P.S. While I was writing this, PZ Myers also wrote on the topic.

Edit: Thunderf00t also posted to YouTube about this:

Short version, he says that you shouldn’t pick fights with other atheists because it weakens the movement, then proceeds to pick a fight with almost his entire blog network. The idea being that they are the ones causing the problem, but he’s above it all and only trying to fix things. He does his usual straw-manning and trying to conflate sexual harassment and consensual sexual behavior and takes a pot shot at Rebecca Watson.

Edit 2: Greta Christina also weighed in.

Edit 3: So did Chris Hallquist.

Edit 4: Richard Carrier is recommended reading.

From → meta

3 Comments
  1. Martha permalink

    This brings me to Thunderf00t’s post on the issue. Before I get into my analysis, I wanted to call attention to his rhetorical strategy here. He’s arguing against a position, but gives no links, no quotes and names no names. This is usually a strong indicator that you’re in for a big straw man and this is no exception. It’s easy to make your opponents look ridiculous when your audience only gets your word for what exactly it is that they are saying.

    Yes, exactly! The only real question is whether he was deliberately misleading, too lazy to check his “facts,” or simply so biased that he can’t see past the end of his nose on this one.

    You know what? I don’t care which explanation is right. It’s ugly and damaging all the same.

    • Considering his history of doing stuff like this, I’m pretty sure he does it on purpose as a strategy.

  2. Bruce McGlory permalink

    Ugh it sucks that such a ridiculous childish pig used Red Dwarf to make his ridiculous chilidsh psuedo-argument.

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