Monday, June 18, 2012

Beyond Elevatorgate

It's barely been one year since Elevatorgate and my posting of my thoughts on it. In that time, I've been involving myself very deeply in gender studies. While I've only written up one review on a book I've read on the subject, I've actually read several (as well as many more on other topics I haven't reviewed) and been involved heavily in study on the topic in other ways. This past February at Naka-Kon I even gave a talk on the issues of sexism in anime (which went over very well and I'll be reprising at Tokyo in Tulsa next month).

So it's interesting to me to take a look back and see how the whole issue has evolved over the past year.

In general, I think it's brought up a lot of very good discussion. The notion that there is a lot of harassment that goes on has definitely been brought to the forefront of a lot of the skeptic movement. But sadly, that doesn't mean that people have actually learned from it. They're still making the same mistakes they did in the immediate aftermath, claiming that women being creeped on and objectified isn't a problem.

Much of the discussion lately from the apologist side seems to be that it's not "harassment" until someone's said no and the behavior continued. While from a rather rational standpoint, I agree with this, there's obviously cases that cross the line. The best example recently was where one speaker was solicited to join in a threesome by being passed a card with nudity on it without even being given a chance to respond. That's harassment.

But what of the "lesser" case in which someone flirts, inappropriately, but has not yet been rebuked?

Apologists are hammering the position that it's not harassment (and so it shouldn't be an issue). However, in discussing the issue with a friend that works as a probation officer with the MO Department of Youth Services' Gender Response Team, I was informed that by definition, if a woman feels harassed, even without letting anyone knows, it's harassment.

I personally don't like this. It reeks of the "stand your ground" laws in which someone just needs to "feel" something and there's repercussions for the other party. Except that, my friend noted, this definition can't be upheld in courts since it's too subjective and demonstrating that the feelings were reasonable still requires some sort of standard. So that definition is kind of useless. In reality, there is that standard of needing a clear rejection.

But the bigger issue isn't on meeting that standard. Convention like TAM have done a great job of making a harassment policy that does protect against clear cut harassment. But what they haven't done is engaged in any sort of dialogue on the stuff that falls below that threshold.

Instead, the apologists have been busy claiming that if it doesn't meet that criteria, it's not an issue, and thereby trivializing a major source of concern. They blindly forget that all harassment, sexual assault, and rape, is enabled by a culture that thinks creeping on women isn't an issue and dismisses it. That's rape culture.

This should be a major embarrassment for the skeptic and atheist community. We very frequently say that religious extremists are enabled by a society that thinks non-rational thought is a virtue. In the exact same manner, rape is enabled by a society that thinks womens' feelings are a non-issue unless it meets a certain threshold beyond which they can "rightfully" be called "victims".

This is exactly what's been going on over at this blog. Redd links to a video in which Emery Emery says that this low level harassment isn't an issue worth raising a fuss over. And in general I agree. It's an issue, but it's not a huge one. It's a pretty small one, but that's exactly how Rebecca, Jen, and PZ treated the original issue. What they have been much more vocal on is the reprisals they've received for even daring to mention it and the trivializing and silencing they've received as a result. That is a very big issue that the apologists are refusing to even acknowledge.

And then there's the strawmen. The apologists consistently claim that Rebecca, Jen, PZ, and others drawing attention to this problem are saying TAM and such conferences are unsafe. I called this strawman and asked for examples of this. The response was underwhelming. I was given Rebecca saying,
I do not feel welcomed or safe and I disagree strongly with the recent actions of the JREF president, DJ Grothe.
I think Redd missed the point that Rebecca was only speaking for herself there. But then there were other gems:
This is quite obviously not a safe space for me or for other women who want to be free of the gendered slurs and sexual threats and come-ons we experience in our day-to-day lives.
Which is a very different argument than the words Redd and other apologists are trying to shove into Rebecca's mouth. The apologists are trying to frame this as the clear cut "harassment" that demands an immediate and significant response. But this comment that was even quoted at me makes it very clear that what Rebecca's talking about is the low key harassment that's constantly ongoing and isn't something that can really be reported for the reasons I noted above.

I've called this, but the obfuscation continues. It's embarrassing, but makes another issue very clear to me. One of the final points in "The Gender Knot" was that we are all part of this culture if for no other reason than our language is steeped with gender bias. It doesn't mean we endorse it, but admitting that we're involved in it, and getting over that knee-jerk reaction and guilt is the first step to being able to change the culture.

Unfortunately, much of the skeptic community, which has pulled itself from the culture of non-rational thinking that pervades this country, refuses to acknowledge that they may be part of other systems.


Emily Dietle said...

Excellent post, Jon. I wonder how long the trivializing and straw-man arguments will persist in this arena?

Ticktock said...

Since there are many voices responding to this discussion, it's not entirely fair to categorize many pro-TAM-is-safe comments as straw-man. While some of the complaints about harassment are generalized, there are quite a few comments from those who have never attended TAM who actually believe that misogyny and disrespect toward women is rampant at TAM. To them, I say that, aside from the anomalous report, TAM is a safe and respectful environment. It's hard to argue a point against multiple POVs without being accused of straw-man by somebody. America's favorite fallacy.

Jon Voisey said...

Very true that it's hard to respond to a group with many POV's. Dawkins faced this with "God Delusion" in which the most common response is just that: Calling it a strawman because you don't want to be associated.

But just as Dawkins looks at the mainstream attitudes, the ones that surveys show are the largest majority, so too should we be looking at the comments of the leaders of this conversation: Rebecca, Jen, PZ, and Elyse. Railing at them and then suddenly switching to someone else so you can avoid getting your strawman getting called out is moving the goalposts. Pick your fallacy. Either way, there's logical flaws.