I’ve waited a while to write this, waiting to see how things have shaken out, but time is up for waiting. During Skepticon an incident occurred that involved one attendee threatening another with a loaded gun. The authorities were called as one would expect, and I guess the person was thrown out of Skepticon or agreed to leave. This person will not be allowed back for future Skepticons. Who was this person? I don’t know because right now that information is being kept private, except maybe if you’re a conference organizer. Since it’s doubtful that any significant legal penalty will follow from this event, I’m not sure why the name is private.
Recently, my friend Sharon tweeted asking where the Skepticon response was, and was then added to the BlockBot for “lying”. The lie? That Skepticon didn’t respond. Well, she’s right, because the claimed response, was not from Skepticon itself but from Dave Muscato. In fact, the post refers to Skepticon in the third person. I don’t care about the Block Bot nonsense, but it did get me to go through and realize that Skepticon has not publically (correct me if I’m wrong) give a full account of the incident. Why not? I won’t hazard a guess here.
So what can we learn here? Harassment policies aren’t protection. They’ve now become conference bling, something you brag about. Safety? Not as high on the agenda now. Also, harassment policies have morphed beyond safety and into statements of values. However, reality is, they don’t protect you from anything. They’re just empty words by themselves.
Now let me unpack this, because this is not a post taking glee in the incident or a total rejection of the ideals behind harassment policies. I believe, though, that politics has once again ruined a positive idea and rendered it useless.
I couldn’t help but notice that before Women in Secularism II, Melody Hensley made a public invite to Hugo Schwyzer. She tweeted the following to Schwyzer:
@hugoschwyzer Come to my conference of awesome secular feminists, Hugo!
@hugoschwyzer No one would be impolite. We have a conference harassment policy. It's a safe place.
These tweets stuck out at me for two reasons. I was surprised that Melody had no clue about Schwyzer’s less than questionable past, and because Schwyzer and his sleeping-with-his-students modus operandi exemplify how harassment policies aren’t actual protection. I’m pretty sure he was aware that sleeping with his students violated his university’s harassment policy, but with a small chance at getting caught and suffering consequences, he did it anyway. Also around this time, a lot of digital ink was spent accusing Justin Vacula of being a serial harasser. While I personally found Justin’s antics surrounding Women in Secularism II to be annoying and trollish, there isn’t a shred of evidence that he’s ever harassed anyone, or been a threat. Think about that, how Schwyzer was treated versus Justin. Was actual safety on the mind, or was this just about politics
The conference that inspired me to write this post, was Skepticon. Let’s take a look at the messy attempt to write a harassment policy.
“Skepticon is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion. We do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form. Conference participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference without a refund at the discretion of the conference organizers.”
So, harassment is not allowed, but it’s also not defined in the first paragraph. Maybe in the next paragraph:
“Harassment includes offensive verbal comments [related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religious identity], deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Assuming the absence of problematic behavior (intimidation, following, inappropriate physical contact, etc.), criticism or disagreement regarding an attendee’s belief structure will not be construed as harassment. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.”
Ah, finally we have some definitions, but it’s still just as messy. What’s “offensive” ? Or about about this paraphrased tautology: “Harassment is harassing photography or recording”. “Deliberate intimidation”? Kind of vague. I’m not sure why “stalking” and “following” needed to be two different things. I understand and agree with stalking but … harassing following? Offensive verbal comments about “religious identity” are harassment, but then again, criticism or disagreement regarding an attendee’s “belief structure” isn’t harassment. A total mess.
“Additionally, exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.”
So, I understand where this is coming from. This is about “Booth Babe” prevention, which, I do think is a good thing. However, again, what is “sexualized clothing” ? It’s left undefined, and I guess it’s “I’ll know it when Isee it” type of thing. What constitutes “sexualized clothing” is probably different from generation to generation, too. Just so vague.
What’s not in the policy is any concrete information about how well or not Skepticon will be equipped to handle actual safety incidents. What’s the security personnel situation like? When I went to college we had campus safety officers, but no police. Is campus providing dedicated safety officers? Was anyone trained? So I look at this policy, see a lot of vague, undefined terms, and almost no mention of enforcement. This policy wasn’t written for safety first, it was written to check off boxes and to be able to advertise, “See, we care about harassment”.
Conferences can and must do better than this. I often reserve this only for the TSA, but the Skepticon harassment policy looks like, is security theatre.. So what are my suggestions?
- Stop beating around the bush, and separate your statement of values from your harassment policy. “Offensive speech” is not by definition harassment, so stop trying to obfuscate the two.
- Make your policy simpler and stop trying to think of every possible attendee to include in your policy. It’s impossible to write an all-encompassing policy so don’t bother. Just make it clear that anyone not feeling safe or welcome for any reason, has someone to go to..
- Focus more on enforcement, both from a policy point of view, and the mechanics of enforcing. Seek out expertise from actual experts. Make sure everyone who attends your conference is aware of what kind of safety and law enforcement assets are available.
- Be transparent. Report how many incidents you had and the type. In some cases, this might require publicly naming people. Like for instance, if someone aimed a loaded gun at someone.
I’m not sure that any conference lives up to my ideals (obviously they’re not required to), but I think if we can stop thinking about harassment policies as forms of advertisements and focus on actual safety, everyone wins. If policies were magic, then we wouldn’t need police officers and jails. Let’s do better than empty words.