I support DJ Grothe

This is probably going to be a long post. I’m going to try to keep it from getting TOO long, but that will require not explaining some things in as much detail as I’d like, so be warned of that in advance. Also, I’m going to link to a couple posts on my old blog, where comments are now closed. Feel free to leave any comments whatsoever you have on those posts in the comments thread on this one.

With that said: the suggestion DJ Grothe should resign from position as president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, recently made by a couple Freethought Bloggers, is utterly ridiculous. For those who aren’t aware, a key bit of background for the call-for-resignation is a previous attack on DJ made by Stephanie Zvan, one of the bloggers now suggesting that he resign. There, Stephanie declared, “DJ Grothe has a problem, an ongoing problem with a pattern, and that problem is him.” (Note that she appears to have edited that post after it initially went up, so you shouldn’t assume DJ’s replies in the comments were to the post as it exists now.)

Stephanie’s previous attack on DJ rested on three points: first were some comments DJ made on a discussion involving Lawrence Krauss, where DJ’s comments would have been reasonable in isolation but were probably ill-advised given the context. Given that DJ later acknowledged as much, I don’t think that incident does much to justify Stephanie’s comments about DJ.

The second point involved a dust-up over evolutionary psychology. I’ve written a bit about the attitude of some people in the atheist/skeptic community towards evolutionary psychology, though not as much as I’d like, so briefly: I think too many people in here have an irrational dislike of evolutionary because they mistakenly think it has bad socio-political consequences, in particular they mistakenly think that explaining behavior excuses it.

A perfect example of this sort of confusion comes from one of the posts Stephanie linked to as representing the kind of “expertise” DJ should have consulted before commenting. The post said that the idea that rape is an adaptation “is bullshit. Rape is a sexual hate-crime.” The confusion here is that there is nothing inherently nice about evolution, so something can be both an adaptation and horrible (and, I’d add, something doesn’t have to be a hate-crime to be a horrible crime.)

Stephanie’s third example is from a nasty fight that happened in a comment thread on Greta’s Facebook page. When I started writing this post, I wasn’t sure how to summarize it, but looking through the comments on Stephanie’s post I think DJ had a good summary in one of his replies to Stephanie:

The excerpts on Christina’s post, and the quotes on this post from Long originally seemingly attributed to me (very surprisingly) are only a snippet of a spectacular 200 comment-long FB thread, where Long was insulted, accused of wanted to kick women in cunts, and was party to escalating the rhetoric. As I wrote to Christina, there is never any defense for real or pretend threats of violence, and on her wall, such threats came from both sides. Long was wrong to escalate things, and to comment in anger, as I said on Christina’s post. But my point is that in those quotes of his angry and unfortunate reaction (something, again, I commented about directly on Christina’s post) I believe he is taken out of context, or at least not in the whole context. Note that Christina didn’t quote her defenders’ over-the-top attacks against him. Her post seemed to me to be unfair to Long after I read the whole FB thread where he begins by saying something reasonable, is roundly attacked, unfortunately attacks back, and then is made weird poster boy for misogyny.

I agree with everything DJ says there. People who want to check the accuracy of this description for themselves can see this large (though incomplete) collection of screencaps I took from the thread. A particularly ridiculous aspect of this part of the previous dust-up is that DJ ended up getting attacked, in part, for spending too much time explaining himself.

This incident left me with a very good impression of DJ, in part because I think he, rightly, raised some worries about in-group/out-group and us vs. them thinking in the skeptic community. It also left me with a bad impression of Stephanie, and to a lesser extent a bad impression of Greta Christina (though I’d emphasize that I think Greta has done a lot of really good stuff; see her book or the “If you’re just going to read five things…” on her sidebar).

A final key bit of context here is what DJ said about the e-mails he received as a result of Stephanie’s post:

As Stephanie first published this blog post, a number of people assumed many of the quotes were attributed to me. I have received nearly two dozen emails and FB messages today expressing concern, and even outrage, accusing me of being a misogynist, someone who obviously hates women, someone who defends rape, wants to kick women in cunts, or who said a number of things I did not say to Christina. Some JREF donors have emailed to cancel their support (until clarified that such quotes were at first falsely attributed).

Phew. The reason all of this is important as context is because the calls for DJ to resign are over a comment DJ made referring back to this previous dust-up, which is worth quoting in full:

Barb: I think I see where Sophie is coming from with all of this, and as a gay man I feel I’m sensitive to issues of sexism and homosexism.

It is true that harassment issues are much discussed in some quarters of the skeptics and atheist and other allied movements (all generally for the better, to the extent the emotionally charged issues are tempered with evidence) but to my knowledge there has never been a report filed of sexual harassment at TAM and there have been zero reports of harassment at the TAMs we’ve put on while I’ve been at JREF.

Of course that doesn’t mean such didn’t happen, but of 800+ responses to our attendee survey last year, only three people said they were made to feel unwelcome by someone at the event: one, a man who didn’t like all the magic; two, a woman who was ridiculed for her veganism; and three, a conservative who didn’t feel welcome because of what he saw as an undue emphasis by speakers and attendees on progressive and leftist ideals. (One woman at the event did, however, complain to staff that she felt she may be harassed by someone in the future, and felt uncomfortable about the man, and while we are concerned about such concerns, she didn’t complain of any actual activity that had happened that the hotel or security or law enforcement or others could take action on.)

I believe I understand the impulse to protect people from harm (this is a strong motivation for skeptics, after all) but telling newbies that they need to be on guard against so-called sexual predators at our events, or that the movement or movements are “unsafe for women,” may be a sure-fire way of making some women feel unwelcome who otherwise would feel and be safe and welcomed. As for policies, I think Ben is on the right track. We are all against harassment or bullying of any kind, sexual or otherwise. Any incident of harassment or assault should immediately be reported to security and law enforcement, and JREF staff and the hotel staff stand ready to assist should any regrettable incident ever occur, God forbid. But again, no such incident has ever occurred at TAM to my knowledge, and I believe that bears mentioning in current discussions about how prevalent are the unnamed “sexual predators” at various atheist and skeptical events.

Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

A few things are worth emphasizing here: first, DJ makes clear that just because he had not received reports of harassment at TAM does not mean it hadn’t happened. Second, DJ is not disputing the value of harassment policies; in fact TAM implemented them before the current conversation about them.

Most importantly, if you know the history, it’s quite clear that when DJ refers to “irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics,” he really does mean a small number. But it’s a number that includes Stephanie Zvan. My guess is DJ did not want to name names initially, because he did not want to be unnecessarily inflammatory. This may have been a mistake, though, as it may have led to women who DJ did not have in mind mistakenly thinking he was talking about them.

I’m sympathetic with other things DJ says in his comment as well. I wouldn’t have said some of the things he said, but then I’m not the president of a major skeptic organization who’s had to deal with angry, misinformed e-mails stemming from attacks by people like Stephanie. And DJ didn’t say that was definitely to blame for the drop in attendance by women, only that it might be. I think that’s a reasonable hypothesis, all things considered, though there are of course other possible explanations. And as should be clear from what I’ve written so far, I agree with DJ about people saying irresponsible things about these issues.

I think DJ has handled himself quite well in the ensuing controversy. See for example what he’s done trying to clear up a misunderstanding with Ashley Miller. (And yes, I think that piece of this suggests TAM could improve its reporting procedures, though it also suggests TAM has done a good job of dealing with problems in the moment.)

I can’t say the same of his more extreme critics. Greg Laden, for example, claims that DJ “clearly disassociates himself with” the part of the skeptics’ movement “that wants women to be not only comfortable, but to lead, and this includes the majority of people in the movement.”

How ridiculous. Everything I’ve seen of DJ suggests he does want women to be comfortable and involved in leading the skeptics’ movement. I have no doubt that some of the people inclined to support him, myself included, want the same thing.

Similarly, Stephanie accuses DJ of being, “not capable of listening to the people telling him that he’s part of the problem.” I see no evidence of this. An alternative explanation is that he’s listened, and seen little basis for the charge. And if that’s the case, I agree with him.

Note added Sunday, June 3rd: Read the comments on this post at your own risk. They haven’t been moderated at all so far. I reserve the right to moderate comments however I feel like in the future, but it happens that (when it comes to comment policy) I have a very high tolerance for stupidity.

For example, had I been in JT’s position, I would not have banned the people he discusses banning here, though I agree with him that their comments were awful. This should be obvious, but the fact that I allow someone to comment here does not imply I agree with everything they say.

Ryan Grant Long showed to make a comment which I’d strongly recommend reading. The other “names” that have showed up, as far as I can see, are Stephanie Zvan, Kylie Sturgess, and Orac (Orac left quite a few comments, link is to the first one). I’ve left exactly three comments: my reply to Kylie, one defending Ashley Miller, and a completely tangential one about Steven Pinker.

I give those links because I have no idea why anyone would want to read the entire 300+ comment thread. Not that the comments I’ve just linked to are necessarily the only ones worth reading, but I’d encourage everyone reading this to ask yourselves if you have better uses for your time before diving in.

Note added Thursday, June 7th: Comments on this post are now closed. I decided having this thread open was no longer worth the trouble to me personally. If you have something to say to me about this post, you can say it through e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter.