I Participated In A Video Conversation on the TAM Controversy

I joined PZ MyersAl StefanelliGreg LadenIan CromwellJason ThibeaultOphelia BensonRebecca Watson, and Stephanie Zvan for a discussion about the recent controversies in the movement related to sexual harassment policies and conferences. Specifically we were focused on the tensions resulting from recent remarks DJ Grothe made blaming women’s online discussions of harassment for a precipitous drop in women’s registrations for this year’s TAM (The Amazing Meeting).

I found the whole discussion very interesting and clarifying. There was some good debate at points, particularly at the end of the discussion where the subject came up of whether we should have implicit movement norms against speakers ever sleeping with conference guests. So don’t miss that.

This was not just an exercise in the “hivemind” agreement we at Freethought Blogs are often accused of having. Before the talk began I was wondering how the whole hivemind thing would work. Would I go into some sort of a trance and experience the universal mind we all shared occasionally moving my mouth and then stopping my mouth and continue what it was saying through another mouth? To my relief, nothing of the kind happened! Would you believe that! I was able to express my concerns freely and then have others address them in illuminating and sometimes quite varying ways! It really was remarkable and heartening!

My specific contributions to the discussion were the following.

First, I raised the issue of DJ Grothe’s poor judgment and incompetent understanding of how to utilize his power effectively. In recent months he has wasted his important time and his powerful voice defending a combustible troll in the midst of a flamewar by making picayune distinctions, and had the whole thing blow up in his face as the troll continued to flame out. This damaged his reputation over an issue he should have never wasted his energies on or risked his public persona over.

Then recently he spoke loosely and speculatively in public, specifically on Facebook, while being the president of a major movement organization whom he de facto represents. Rather than making sure his institution dealt diplomatically with its critics, reached out to them behind the scenes, and was careful about public messaging to justifiably angry and worried women (and men!) upset about misogyny in the movement, he took to Facebook in careless and incendiary ways. This is not how the president of an organization represents their organization.

Could you imagine President Obama taking to Facebook to carelessly spitball speculations about whether key Senators or his boosters at MSNBC were the fault for some political woes he was facing? No, because he is more disciplined than that and crafts his messaging more precisely so that even on the rare occasions he does chastise allies and asks them for some understanding, it is far more careful than that. And he keeps whatever harsh conversations or inquiries or speculations he has behind the scenes.

Secondly, I raised the point that none of us in the blogosphere is expecting conferences to be able to control all attendees such that no harassment ever occurs. But what we want the stories after the conferences to be is of how well the conference dealt with those inevitable situations. We don’t want stories of how they claim to have had no such instances of harassment while stories are floating around that they indeed have them and were alerted of them. In a word, we don’t want to be the Catholic Church.

Thirdly, I rejected Greg Laden’s speculations that Grothe was uninterested in stopping harassment and preferred it be there. I also asked for clarification about what instances exactly he was accused of shoving under the rug and what the evidence was for them. At that point Rebecca helpfully chimed in to explain much more background on the “upskirt” videographer and how well established it was that he was an actual harasser and that he was reported to TAM. (Greg also has a response to the video up wherein he replies to objections.)

Fourthly, I stressed in the middle and at the end that organized atheism should take an interest in values issues just the way that scientists should take an interest in atheism. Movement atheists rightly insist against accommodationists that we move beyond just minimally defending science education to (a) promoting critical thinking in all areas, (b) challenging specific religious obstacles to rational thought (like faith and brainwashing indoctrination), and (c) extrapolating from scientific understanding to unabashedly highlight some of its atheistic philosophical implications for metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology.

So such atheists should suck it up when some of us want to say that not only does good naturalistic thinking lead beyond just science to atheism but it also leads further to important truths about values that need to be discussed and developed. Just as we try to insist accommodationists cannot just ignore the irrationalism and abuses of religion as though science were the only thing that was important, so some of us atheists think we cannot ignore the need for constructive philosophical ethical paradigms and practical social justice, as though atheism were the only thing that was important.

And, further, since we are in conflicts with religions which have are presumed falsely to deserve hegemony in the public discourse in many “values” debates, and since many people presently claim that their values are bound up with their religions, if atheists are to counter and undermine their influence we must do so by proactively working out robust and coherent distinctively atheistic (i.e. naturalistic) values paradigms and practices. Our enemy, theism, is in the values game. That’s (maddeningly) its selling point to a lot of people no matter how shitty a job the religions actually do at determining values. Atheists need to step up to the plate, both learn about and further develop the rich godless (or god-indifferent) tradition of philosophical ethics that already exists, claim it, debate it amongst ourselves, and be known for standing up for it and living by it.

Finally, even if these philosophical reasons did not exist for us to expand the focus of discussions in our movement beyond just the anti-theistic points we agree on, we would still have incentives to work out pro-women, pro-minority, pro-LGBT practices and attitudes if only for strategic reasons alone. Being known as an all white, old, academic, male group that pisses on ordinary people’s beliefs is not good PR, at the minimum. And expanding the enthusiastic participation in, and identification with, atheism and skepticism by other kinds of people involves, you know, actually learning about what attracts, interests, concerns, and motivates them. And sending the message that atheism can be part and parcel of dealing with basic women’s dignity, rights, inclusion, success, opportunity, and comfortability issues should be a huge tangible draw to women who care about all those things in a very immediate and personal way—even where they might not do so abstractly with a robust feminist theory.

My last contribution to the discussion was to raise the question of whether we should have norms by which it is understood speakers never sleep with conference attendees whom they are just meeting. There was a fair degree of disagreement here and actually some progress and clarifications of positions that we should take at minimum.

I tend to agree that as long as there is “enthusiastic consent” it is not a problem. I do not see where the speaker has any formal or substantial power over attendees that makes that in principle a violation of duties of propriety of the powerful. But I think that speakers should not be the pursuers. I think speakers should be extra careful to give many “outs” to someone they are propositioning, many ways and opportunities to politely and comfortably refuse invitations. I think Rebecca has an excellent point that since people might feel extra fearful of reporting speakers that published sexual harassment policies should go out of their way to explicitly stress that speakers are bound to those policies also and that there will be no repercussions to attendees who report inappropriate behaviors by speakers. And, of course, these entire policies should be published so prominently as to be unavoidable for all attendees to be apprised of the procedures that will be followed whether they are the reporter or the reported.

So those were the points I sought to raise for discussion or to advocate for. There are 8 more fascinating and thoughtful people who also had plenty to say, so I hope you watched the whole video to get all of that.

Since I am raising for discussion here a controversial topic which has split the movement in many ways, let me stress before you comment that I am quite averse to name-calling morally. I don’t care what side of this dispute you are on, I don’t want to see any of it in my comments section and I will tolerate very very little of it (if any). Please be respectful and philosophical and constructive in your remarks. Don’t demonize whole swaths of people, don’t mischaracterize anyone’s statements or concerns. Let’s try to have productive, evidence and morality based discussions, rather than selfish or self-serving flamewars. This is a philosophy blog, not a mud wrestling pit. Let’s rigorously, dialectically, and open-mindedly debate in ways that make agreements at least possible in principle, shall we? If the comments section turns into a war rather than a philosophical debate, I reserve the right to close the whole thing down. There are other places you can go to to slime and slander each other in destructive ways. (Not that you should do so there, anyway, but they exist if you really need to.)

Finally, if you liked this intra-FtB discussion, you might want to read the conversations I had last Thursday with the FtBers Ophelia BensonZinnia JonesRichard CarrierIan CromwellGreg Laden, and PZ Myers

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.