Freedom of Speech and Offence: The ACA and Rationality Rules

Freedom of Speech and Offence: The ACA and Rationality Rules May 12, 2019

I know nothing about these two entities, really, but here is my view on recent goings-on. In case you are essentially as ignorant as me:

So, who are they?

ACA –  The Atheist Community of Austin, producers of The Atheist Experience that has long been a platform for Matt Dillahunty and others. They have been and are responsible for a number of other radio shows and podcasts.

Rationality Rules – A video channel on YouTube, by Stephen Woodford.

What happened?

The Atheist Community of Austin (ACA) have very recently denounced Stephen Woodford for apparent transphobia because of a video that Woodford made. The video in question concerned how it’s unfair that transgender females are competing in female-only sports.

The statement by the ACA reads:

Statement from the ACA Board of Directors

Recently, the ACA Board of Directors was made aware that guest co-host Stephen Woodford (YouTuber “Rationality Rules”) had made ignorant and transphobic videos and statements on his social media platforms in the weeks leading up to his appearances on ACA shows. We would like to make it clear that we do not share or condone his opinions or attitudes, and that we fully and actively support equal rights for the LGBTQIA+ community.

We acknowledge that the ACA did a poor job showing our support by allowing Mr. Woodford to make appearances on our shows without either addressing his controversial views on the air, or asking him to refrain from appearances until he released a clarifying statement on his channel. We also failed to communicate our feelings and intentions in a timely manner to our volunteers and fans.

We sincerely apologize for the pain and anguish our failings have caused our viewers, volunteers, and our ACA family all over the world. We love the trans community and are deeply distressed to have caused anyone harm. We have let you down, and we intend to do our best to earn back your trust.

The ACA is working quickly and diligently to ensure that this kind of mistake does not happen again. We will be coordinating with hosts, co-hosts, and staff to communicate any potential issues with a guest well in advance of when they are set to appear on any ACA production. The ACA will not knowingly allow any ACA production or publication to be used in a manner that’s inconsistent with our mission and position statements.

We would also love to hear from you, our ACA family. If you have any ideas or feedback on how we can do better, please email us at President@atheist-community.org

Sincerely,

Board of Directors

The Atheist Community of Austin

Woodford’s video is as follows:

I am not going to discuss the video or trans issues per se here. Indeed, I haven’t even watched it. I understand that the video possibly contained some arguable scientific claims and poor referencing. There is much room for debate as to whether discussing these ideas constitutes a phobia – an irrational fear or dislike. I understand that some of the language used was potentially insensitive, to boot. For a pretty good discussion of the video and the ACA reaction, see this thread here on Reddit.

That said, it is worth noting that I am hoping to do a piece on the very same subject to talk about the philosophical categorisations of sex and gender. But that is not for now.

You know that when an organisation uses the term “LGBTQIA+” in a statement it will be red rag to a bull for many people. I think what could have been a storm in a teacup incident (in terms of how well known someone like Woodford really is)  might become a much more divisive thing.

Discussion

My broader point today is about how atheism and “atheist communities” or organisations can often take on positions and attitudes that are often very similar to the much-attacked atheism+ movement. Atheism is either seen as positive atheism or negative atheism where it is either a positive affirmation that God does not exist (or a negative affirmation that God does exist) or a lack of belief in God (or gods). Other than that, there is not a lot to atheism. And this is often a problem for theists who attack atheism by attaching all sorts of other beliefs to it.

And here we have the Atheist Community of Austin seeming to attach a whole set of moral principles to atheism. But, then again, they are a community and it is difficult to create and maintain a community on merely the singular claim about God. Communities need more than that to bind them together.

And this creates a tension that we can see play out the above scenario.

These add-ons, which some people might argue are necessary to formulate a meaningful community, are evidenced in the ACA’s About page and Position Statements:

The Atheist Community of Austin is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state. The ACA serves the local Austin community through outreach programs, providing informational resources and various volunteer activities. In addition, the ACA serves the community-at-large through free online portals including informational wikis, regular audio/video podcasts and interactive blogs.

We are affiliated with a number of national and international groups devoted to atheism, freethought, or secular humanism. [My emphasis.]

However, I can’t seem to find much in their position statements that is relevant to this particular incident. The key text comes in their policies section:

The Atheist Community of Austin Anti-Harassment Policy

The Atheist Community of Austin places great value on freedom of speech and the ability to challenge ideas. We believe that vigorous debate about beliefs and the actions that result from them is valuable. No idea is sacred. No idea is inherently worthy of respect, and not all ideas are equally meritorious.

People, on the other hand, are worthy of respect. Attacking individuals, and not their ideas, is not appropriate and may cross the line into harassment. We believe that vigorous, even contentious, debates about the merits of ideas, especially religious beliefs, can take place without denigrating the people involved in the debate. Membership within the ACA is contingent upon accepting and abiding by this harassment policy.

Definition of Harassment

Harassment includes offensive comments (especially regarding: race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, age), sexual or hateful images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, unwelcome sexual attention, as well as any other behaviors that create a risk to personal health and safety, with final decision in the hands of the ACA Board of Directors.

ACA Anti-Harassment Policy

The Atheist Community of Austin is committed in all areas to promoting an environment that is free from harassment. Harassment for any reason will not be tolerated. All members, especially officers of the organization, are expected and required to abide by this policy at all times, towards members and non-members alike. Any infractions by members should be reported to the ACA Board of Directors.

Participants at any ACA-sponsored event asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately. Members, their guests, visitors to the group, speakers, vendors, booth operators, exhibitors, or others associated with an ACA event are all equally subject to the anti-harassment policy. If a participant engages in harassing behavior, the event organizers and/or any ACA Board Member may take any action they deem appropriate, including warning the offender or expulsion from the group or event [with no refund]. Any actions taken must be reported to the ACA Board of Directors, following the Reporting Procedure outlined below.

Nothing in the policy is intended to prohibit, restrict, or police consensual activity or discussion between adults. The key element in avoiding a charge of harassment is to obtain an affirmative “yes” to behavior toward others, and not just an absence of “no.” It is always appropriate to ask if your behavior toward someone is welcome.

So, to be fair, the ACA has set out what they deem as harassment, to which the video appears to qualify (in their view) and, as a result, they have enacted their anti-harassment policy.

Again, this argument comes down to freedom of speech issues and who gets to define offensive comments and suchlike. It seems clear to me that people in the trans community have complained to the ACA and they have reacted. At least, that is apparent from the statement that they issue. And they deemed their reaction appropriate to the harm caused. Some people will argue over whether this is truly a denouncement or a demand for clarification. As ever, with these sorts of argument, we have a slippery slope problem, or a problem with clear demarcation between what is and what isn’t harassment or offensive.

Who gets to define the line at which not-offensive becomes offensive, and not-harassment becomes harassment? When these things appear to be subjectively derived, then you get into sticky situations.

As mentioned, it is up for debate as to whether a group can form their community around and using the term for the affirmation of a lack of gods. But to bring a community together, you need more than that; you only need to look at Christian churches and communities that come in every flavour, usually set around moral stances.

An organisation like the ACA will naturally add more to their MO than mere atheism, not least because they will have to adhere to existing employment and human rights regulation. At the end of the day, consensus rules. Literally. These organisations will create their rules by consensus. And if, over time, people reject such rules on account of whatever the reasons might be, the organisation will shrink into insignificance. if, on the other hand, people agree with such denouncements or positions, then the organisation will maintain its relevance. It’s simply the evolution of ideas (memetics) whereby the most relevant or pragmatic rules allow the conceivers or adopters to survive.

My Position

My position? If trans people took offence and complained, then the ACA are policy-bound to do something about it, which they did. To me, even though this has caused a bit of a storm amongst some, it seems to have been more a demand for clarification than a total denouncement. Possibly more bluster and frontage than actual action, but I could be wrong. They had to be seen to do something public about it, so they did. This may or may not help Rationality Rules to fix any shortcomings with his videos, if there were any. Will it deeply affect my life? No, because I have no horse in this race; I am not trans or a consumer of the ACA material. But if it helps to improve understanding of trans issues, then that’s a good thing, including for me. I know I need to research the matter more thoroughly. It’s not like trans people will suddenly disappear at some point (well, it depends how fascist the Republicans become…), and so non-trans people will need to be able to understand, live with and integrate better with trans people.

It’s like any civil rights issues when a marginalised group goes through the process of acceptance and then equality – there will be process pains. We are some 50 years after the civil rights movement for equality of blacks, and there often seems so far still to go. Trans issues are relatively new and are slightly more complex to understand than issues of colour, not least because of the larger variety of categories covered by the term “trans”.

If people don’t like it, then they will vote with their feet or ballot papers. That’s how free democracies work.

But we will always have wranglings over what moral stances we should take, and more so about the regulations that such stances may lead to in a society of complex social and political frameworks. When it comes to freedom of speech, censure and censorship, the arguments always seem to remain unresolved.

Possibly because they are unsolvable. The lines of demarcation are arguably arbitrary and dependent on subjective appraisal and evaluation, of what offence entails and who feels it and why. So, to repeat, it comes down to consensus.

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