SkepTech — an upcoming Minnesota conference “all about the relationship between critical thinking and innovation” led by two campus student skeptic groups — has announced a harassment policy. I cannot fathom why conferences appealing to communities of humanists, skeptics, rationalists, etc. would need exhaustive guidelines for conduct to be spelled out and presented not only to conference staff, but also to conference attendees and the general public. It as if people at atheist/skeptic conferences — despite a very clean track record of successful conferences and major events without any incidents — do not know how to behave properly and that there is a problem with conduct which needs to be addressed.
This post will contest parts of SkepTech’s conference policy, raise some questions which show the ridiculousness of the policy, and argue against unnecessary lengthy conference policies.
Paragraph one of SkepTech’s harassment policy states,
SkepTech is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion. We do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form. Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks. Conference participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference without a refund at the discretion of the conference organizers.
It seems most odd that conference organizers need to state that SkepTech is dedicated to providing a “harassment-free conference experience for everyone…” Is there reason to believe otherwise? Would not conference organizers, in all cases, be interested in providing a great conference experience for everyone? Why would harassment be tolerated? Laws — irrespective of any conference policies — exist which show that harassment is not tolerated and is associated with legal consequences. Law enforcement, rather than conference policies or staff, establishes a system of laws which allows for a redress of grievances.
Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any venue or talk? What place does language policing have in a skeptical conference which will be attended by adults who likely use and are exposed to sexual imagery and language on a daily basis? What about presenters who, when talking about sex or sex in technology/the media, utilize sexual imagery in their PowerPoint slides to demonstrate a point?
Shall books by Dr. Darrel Ray be banned from conferences? Shall PZ Myers, one of the speakers at the conference, be banned from making jokes at the podium like those in this video? Should Greta Christina, one of the speakers at the conference, be banned from talking about erotica or sharing her writing about erotica?
The second paragraph of the policy states,
Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.
It seems odd that, after noting harassment will be be tolerated in any form, that the policy would include examples not only of harassment, but what harassment can include. Note that, alone, “offensive verbal comments” “related to sex…” do not necessarily constitute harassment. Who decides what is offensive, anyway? Apparently, the organizers have a monopoly on a subjective concept and the intentions, one might think, of the person who uttered a comment which was construed as offensive mean nothing.
It is quite strange that “offensive verbal comments related to […] religion” would be included in a category of harassment at a conference marketed toward skeptics and atheists. Shall speakers be barred from uttering “offensive verbal comments” about religion? Who decides? If a group of sensitive Christians or Muslims, for instance, attended the conference and complained to staff, should conference attendees be ejected? Shall potentially offensive music like Tim Minchin’s “The Pope Song” be banned from the conference?
The next paragraphs read,
If a participant engages in harassing behavior, the conference organizers may take any action they deem appropriate, including warning the offender or expulsion from the conference with no refund. If you are being harassed, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please contact a member of conference staff immediately. Conference staff can be identified by badges with the word “STAFF” and a blue stripe on them. Conference staff will be happy to help participants contact hotel/venue security or local law enforcement, provide escorts, or otherwise assist those experiencing harassment to feel safe for the duration of the conference. We value your attendance.
Fair enough, but it seems most strange to tell people to report to members of conference staff with concerns…as if people did not already know to do this if they had any concerns.
The conference policy then goes on to include a phone number for 911, the Minneapolis police department, a sexual assault hotline/center, a medical center, and a local taxi service. Why is this information needed and part of a harassment policy? It may indeed be helpful for attendees to have the phone number for a taxi service in order to have transportation around the conference, but why is this part of a harassment policy and not simply an addition to a conference tabloid?
Why is there information for a sexual assault hotline/center within the conference policy? Is there a problem of sexual assault at skeptic/atheist conferences which warrants such an inclusion in addition to information for a medical center and 911? Perusing the website for the sexual assault hotline/center reveals absolutely bogus statistics (95% of domestic violence is perpetrated by men, 90-95% of domestic violence victims are women, and 98-99% of rape is committed by men) which should not, by any means, be included with a website for a skeptic conference.
In addition, the information provided by the sexual assault hotline/center contains various statements and anti-male/misandric attitudes (“violent masculinity” is discussed and “male privilege” is partially to blame for domestic violence”) which could be construed as offensive…a direct violation when considering the conference’s policy.
It is a shame that many skeptic and atheist conferences, including SkepTech, have felt a need to include lengthy and unreasonable conduct policies for their conferences which, if absolutely necessary perhaps for legal reasons, can be limited to the following two sentences: “Appropriate behavior in compliance with the law is expected of all conference attendees. Improper behavior may constitute ejection from the conference at the discretion of conference staff.”
The skeptic and atheist communities are blighted by such lengthy harassment policies and recurring false narratives asserting that atheist/skeptic conferences are unsafe places which are particularly hostile to women make the situation even worse. Those outside the atheist/skeptic communities — including theists and persons new to the communities — are undeniably sent a message which reflects poorly on the atheist/skeptic communities – that harassment policies are needed and that, without them, people will feel unsafe or not know to behave at conferences.
Skeptech organizers should discard their current harassment policy and, if absolutely necessary, replace it with a simple statement such that I included above. Atheist/skeptic conferences are not dangerous places in which exhaustive codes of conduct are needed for people to feel safe and/or behave in compliance with law.
Share your thoughts below.
Updates: This policy seems to be lifted from ‘Geek Feminism Wiki.’ It’s also quite curious that SkepTech would speak about sexual imagery and language being inappropriate considering that they link a BDSM club on their website (“This dance club is centered around people who like to explore their kinky side, with BDSM & burlesque shows and a dance floor.”).