I’ve been writing about sexism and feminism in the secular community for several years now, and if you’d asked me this question even a few days ago, I would’ve said that I thought things were getting better. There’s certainly evidence I could point to to support that: in just a short time, anti-harassment policies have become standard at our conferences and gatherings, we’ve had a parade of male leaders speaking out against sexism, we have whole conventions and organizations specifically addressing the concerns of secular women. But the events of the last week or so have given me reason to question how much progress we’ve really made, or whether we’ve made any at all.
One of the sparks that started this blaze was Ashley Paramore’s video discussing, in graphic detail, her experience of sexual assault at the TAM conference in Las Vegas (which, I emphasize, was handled well by the organizers). She didn’t name the person responsible, but it brought the simmering issue of sexual harassment in the secular community back to everyone’s attention.
The next development, shortly thereafter, was an article by skeptical activist Karen Stollznow on Scientific American’s Mind blog that recounted her experience of four years of sexual harassment by a colleague. When she reported it to her employer, in her words, here’s what happened:
They assured me they were disciplining the harasser but this turned out to be a mere slap on the wrist. He was suspended, while he was on vacation overseas. They offered no apology, that would be an admission of guilt, but they thanked me for bringing this serious matter to their attention. Then they asked me to not discuss this with anyone.
…I have since discovered that this company has a history of sexual harassment claims. They also have a track record of disciplining these harassers lightly, and then closing ranks like good ol’ boys. Another colleague assured me this was better than their previous custom of simply ignoring claims of sexual harassment.
But what turned this spark into a raging conflagration was that, soon after Stollznow’s story was published, the person she’d allegedly been discussing was named by several people on Twitter and elsewhere – although not by Stollznow herself – as Benjamin Radford. It was also reported that Radford and Stollznow’s employer at the time, the one whom she alleged stonewalled her and let him off with a slap on the wrist, was CFI. Take what lessons you will from that.
Once the first name was dropped and the taboo was broken, more personal testimonies started coming in rapid succession. Carrie Poppy, formerly of the JREF (James Randi’s organization, which runs TAM) spoke up, supporting Karen Stollznow’s account and discussing her experiences with sexism at the JREF, which drove her to quit in protest after just six months. Sasha Pixlee brought up his own experience with the JREF’s president D.J. Grothe. Last and worst, serious allegations have been reported about two big names: Michael Shermer and Lawrence Krauss (who seems to have threatened legal action to get one of the posts mentioning him taken down).
Let me make a few things clear, so that there’s no mistake. Sometimes, what’s morally right and what’s politically advantageous don’t align well. Sometimes, we have to make hard choices about how far we’re prepared to compromise our ideals in the service of achieving some tangible progress. Sometimes, we have to grit our teeth and work with people we find personally disagreeable, or even repugnant, in order to advance goals that we may have in common.
This isn’t one of those times.
I have no problem working with accommodationist nonbelievers, or even liberal theists, who share social-justice goals with me but abhor frontal attacks on religion. I have no problem cooperating with people whose moral views are deontological rather than consequentialist, or who reject my views about the proper use of the term “spirituality”, or who consider themselves politically libertarian or conservative rather than liberal.
But there’s one line in the sand I won’t suffer to be crossed: I require that anyone who I call my friend or ally must treat all people with equal respect and dignity. I won’t tolerate the company of people who make ugly racist comments, or who’d withhold equal legal protection for LGBTQ people – or who can’t seem to see women as human beings, friends and colleagues, rather than sex objects. For truth’s sake, that last one should be the easiest! Not everyone has friends who are gender or racial minorities – I can understand, if not necessarily condone, why there might be stereotypes and misunderstanding. But women are half the human race.
What I’m thinking hard about is how to judge the veracity of these claims. Although this isn’t a court of law, “innocent until proven guilty” is a good principle that we should strive to respect. The burden of proof should always lie with the person making the claim. On the other hand, we should avoid the kind of ideologically motivated hyperskepticism which claims that, unless there’s video evidence supported by multiple sworn testimonies, we should dismiss all claims of sexual harassment out of hand. The allegation of a powerful man exploiting his status to harass and assault women, I’m very sorry to say, is not an extraordinary claim; it’s an ordinary one. It happens all the time – in academia, in politics, in business, in religion. There’s no reason for skeptics to think it can’t happen to us too. And when the same man is named independently as a predator by multiple people who have nothing to gain by naming him and no obvious motivation to collude, at the very least we owe those allegations very serious consideration.
I’m not saying that every accusation should be believed without question. If for no other reason, I expect the usual trolls and haters to lodge malicious accusations in retaliation. Every claim should be evaluated on its own merits. I’m also not arguing that any kind of misdeed has to be punished with immediate and permanent blackballing (although I do advocate that for rape or other serious sexual assault). Personally, I think that most wrongdoing should be forgivable, if the person is willing to make amends and change their ways. But they have to prove that their contrition is sincere, and that would require a much more forthright acknowledgement of error than I’ve seen from any of the people or organizations who’ve been named so far.
Do I feel heartsick, disgusted, disillusioned by all these revelations about my community? You bet. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t wondered whether there’s any atheist or skeptical group left that’s worth supporting. But then again, if these allegations are true, these things were happening all along, and we just didn’t know about them until now. And however unpleasant the truth may be, I want to know what it is, always. Even if reality is depressing, reason forbids us from trying to pretend it’s other than it is. Our duty, instead, is to fix what’s wrong and make things better. Now we need to start thinking about how to do that.
Image credit: Shutterstock