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?

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula PZ Myers

    Objectively, the “enthusiastic consent” idea seems reasonable…but as a teacher, it is so deeply ingrained in me that you don’t lecture to someone and then frolic sexually with them, that even if it were an accepted norm, I’d still have a great big wall of automatic rejection between me and attendees.

    • julian

      I have similar feelings regarding sex with my subordinates. I won’t fault others for it but I could never engage in it myself.

      And thanks for hosting such an awesome discussion.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/xblog/ Greg Laden

    Here are my followup comments in which I address your objection to my earlier comments as well as other things:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/xblog/2012/06/17/followup-comments/

    I also discuss the “Expectation of Nookie” controversy to which you and PZ refer.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Greg! I put a link to your post in my post.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    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.

    I think this is the most important point of the entire conversation. Yes, I agree that DJ Grothe has spent all too much time and effort shooting himself in the foot. But that’s almost trival compared to this greater issue.

    One thing I think you missed is that all too many people see atheists as lacking morals if not actively immoral. We joke about it with talk of baby barbecues and orgies, but a lot of folks think we do that sort of thing for real. One thing we need to be selling to the public is that a moral system based on altruism and the golden rule is actually better than one based on “God will punish me if I’m not good” or even “I’m good because that pleases The Big Guy In The Sky™.” Theistic moral systems are all about making TBGITS™ happy while an atheist moral system is about making other people happy.

    Of course as an ethicist you’ve probably written about this a bazillion time, but I did want to point it out.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Absolutely, ‘Tis Himself. I tried to get a little more on that point out in my closing statement near the very end and then Al piggybacked me to take it further too.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I totally agree, ‘Tis Himself. This is a critical issue!

  • http://www.alstefanelli.com Al Stefanelli

    Thanks, Dan, for detailing this. There are several people I have communicated with that had no idea what was going on, and after reading your blog, came away with a better understanding.

  • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

    @32 min. So it sounds like abut here, you’re pushing some kind of positivist ideology. And, as I’m sure you know, a lot of us in the skeptic/atheist/whathaveyou movement find that deeply problematic. Would this, for example, preclude an ideologically pluralistic secularist movement? For example, to be a secularist, one must also be a committed feminist, and not OK to be a libertarian secularist? As I’m sure you realize, that’s a pretty divisive view. Does a secularist who doesn’t broadly share the politics of the FTB milieu, they therefore have to leave the movement, or simply shut up about their politics?

    To my way of thinking, yes, a scientific worldview does very much have bearing on larger social and political questions, but it most certainly *does not* imply any particular kind of ideological commitment. And the perception that FTB is pushing this (a perception, I’ll add, that few people here seem to be doing much to discourage) is a big part of the reason why there’s so much pushback against FTB.

    • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

      @1:08 min. Atheist values? I’m not convinced there are “atheist values”. There are definitely atheists *with* values, but the source and specifics of those values are pluralistic by their very nature.

    • skepticalmath

      To my way of thinking, yes, a scientific worldview does very much have bearing on larger social and political questions, but it most certainly *does not* imply any particular kind of ideological commitment.

      (1) Dan Fincke said explicitly that these were the hard, debatable questions about which atheists should be talking, explicitly contrasting them with the easy questions about which we all agree. So while he certainly has his opinions, clearly he is acknowledging that this is a *debate*, not claiming that everyone agrees with him or the FTB bloggers (some of whom, iirc, do not agree with Dan at all.)

      (2) Scientific world-views actually do imply certain political/social values. Why? Because a scientific worldview requires that claims be tested, and if found wanting, discarded. You talk of libertarian atheists. In a scientific worldview, I think that the self-contradictory, anti-empiricist nature of libertarian (Austrian) economics should be dismissed. (If you deny that this is an aspect of Misesian economics…um…read him. And Rothbard.)

    • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

      “(2) Scientific world-views actually do imply certain political/social values. Why? Because a scientific worldview requires that claims be tested, and if found wanting, discarded. You talk of libertarian atheists. In a scientific worldview, I think that the self-contradictory, anti-empiricist nature of libertarian (Austrian) economics should be dismissed. (If you deny that this is an aspect of Misesian economics…um…read him. And Rothbard.)”

      I really don’t buy that, not entirely anyway. Now, yes, you are correct to say that particular claims, even large parts of particular ideological approaches do make testable claims, and those may very well not stand up to scrutiny. And you are correct to say that in the case of free-market libertarianism, their radical “free market” ideology leads them to some pretty questionable claims about economics. But you know what, Marxist economics doesn’t exactly stand up well either. Nor, in terms of gender theory rather than economics, would much of the strong social constructionism that many feminists subscribe to, including at least some (maybe even more than some) feminists on FTB.

      In other words, I don’t think one can name an ideological system that does not have serious empirical blind spots, and that includes the ideologies that are popular with the FTB crowd. So I think to the degree that one is pushing evidence-based inquiry, that requires one to put ideological commitments in check rather than to pick out a specific ideology that you think is “scientific” and defend it against all comers.

      Is any one specific ideology wholly based on empirical observation even possible? I don’t think so. 1) Because that presumes an entirely objective approach to ethics is possible. While I think that science can certainly inform this (see in particular, current research on “moral sentiment” in non-human animals and newborn babies), decisions about what values are prioritized ultimately come down to philosophical differences that are not entirely resolvable by recourse to empiricism; and 2) even insofar as some areas might, in theory, be testable, such as what economic system might be able to deliver the greatest average wealth the greatest number of people, those questions are nowhere near to being answerable given our current state of knowledge.

      Given that, one can very well strive for political debate that is evidence-based, but one cannot select from the existing set of ideologies and claim one to be the true and scientific one. That was the grand mistake of Marxism (aka “scientific socialism”), and one of the major reasons it lead to so much suffering when it has political power.

    • skepticalmath

      I said that scientific world-views imply certain political/social views…..not that there is a single “scientific” ideology nor that such an ideology is possible.

      But you know what, Marxist economics doesn’t exactly stand up well either.

      That’s not a refutation of my point whatsoever. The fact that I provided only one example instead of two hardly qualifies. (I will note, off-topic, that if you want empirically based economic theory that’s been quite succesfull, check out the Post-Keynsians such as Steve Keen.)

      Nor, in terms of gender theory rather than economics, would much of the strong social constructionism that many feminists subscribe to, including at least some (maybe even more than some) feminists on FTB.

      Once again, just because I didn’t provide every example of a non-empirically consistent ideology doesn’t mean my argument is incorrect. In this specific case though, I’m not sure what exactly you are referring to. You mean, say, theories like those of Judith Butler? In that case, I think you’ll find you’re wrong. Scientific studies and anthropological evidence have largely supported many of those views (of particular pertinence, in many ways, is the field of cognitive linguistics.)

      But that’s beside the point. I didn’t claim that one specific ideology currently available in the world is perfect in its reliance on claims verified by empirical testing. I simply claimed that a scientific worldview, properly applied, would lead to libertarian atheists discarding those claims which are not empirically verifiable (and given that Mises and Rothbard both proudly noted that their theories were true regardless of empirical evidence, it isn’t that hard of a thing to notice.)

      I don’t think I really need to list every other mistaken ideology in the world. An example is an example.

    • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

      Belatedly responding to this – but my point is that ideologies across the board have blind spots, so I think naming a few is important. More importantly, part of the controversy around FTB and TAM is that a number of FTB bloggers subscribe very strongly to a feminist ideology, or what was referred to in the conversation above as a “social justice perspective”, which was related to what Daniel was saying about atheism needing some kind of positive statements of values. (And the reason I brought up libertarianism is because that seems to be second only to religion as something the bloggers in the video badmouth.)

      Now I really question whether those in the above panel are coming from some kind of super-objective perspective based on a dispassionate examination of evidence. My reading of their blogs suggests they are not, and that they, like most people, hold political opinions for a variety of reasons, some of them quite emotional. (In fact, given how heated things get on FTB, I’d say, *very* emotional.)

      So if Daniel is arguing that the general political consensus of the above panel is some natural logical outgrowth of a skeptical perspective, I’d have to say, I’m not buying it.

  • smhll

    Does a secularist who doesn’t broadly share the politics of the FTB milieu, they therefore have to leave the movement, or simply shut up about their politics?

    To narrow this down to interpersonal dynamics at conferences, does a libertarian secularist looking for some sexy times at a conference approach it any differently than a feminist or a tree-hugger or anyone else would? Or does he pretty much take his pants off one leg at a time just like anyone else?

  • Wren

    “There was some good debate at points”, lol.

    No man, nine people with the exact same opinion is an echo chamber, not a debate.

    • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

      It’s a “discussion” at most, and certainly not a debate. What would be interesting is if a subset of those from the ArdentAtheist and the FTB discussions would get together and have a real debate. (Maybe bring in the Ask an Atheist folks too.) It might degenerate into a shouting match. Then again, some real issues might get the airing they need.

    • http://strangesally.wordpress.com/ SallyStrange: bottom-feeding, work-shy peasant

      You want to do a Google+ debate with me? I’ll even sign up for Google+. It’ll be fun!