American Atheists fails to enforce conference policy (again)

President of American Atheists David Silverman as pictured in The Blaze

Last week, I wrote about American Atheists’ failure to enforce their conference policy pertaining to photographs and cell phones being used during their 2013 annual conference despite the fact that their conference policy explicitly states that conference attendees — during conference sessions — must turn off cell phones and electronic devices. Another violation of American Atheists’ 2013 conference policy — this time in which the conference organizers and a performer are directly responsible — has emerged.

American Atheists’ 2013 conference included entertainment care of Blair Scott – a comedian and former employee of American Atheists as a Director of Outreach and is noted as being a “good friend, confidant, and kick-ass convention MC” by President of American Atheists David Silverman. Scott is no ‘guy off the street’ because he worked for American Atheists and his comedy routines are available online. American Atheists, then, should have anticipated what Scott was going to offer and may not reasonably claim that they were unaware of what Scott’s routine would include.

Promotion of the conference indicated that Scott would be one of the feature performers during the Friday Night Comedy Event,

American Atheists is proud to announce the music and comedy lineup for the 50th Anniversay National Convention is Austin, TX. 

The Friday Night Comedy Event will feature performances by Blair Scott and Keith Lowell Jensen as well as a musical performance by special guest Greydon Square. Tickets cost $25 and are available in advance or at the door. 

Blair Scott’s comedic routine apparently led some audience members to claim offense (or at least walk out). Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience television show, speaking poorly of Blair Scott, noted “the main problem with him was that he was a pretty clumsy comedian who didn’t know what he was doing.” Glasser also apparently wrote a letter to David Silverman concerning the comedic routine. David Silverman responded saying that Russell Glasser’s opinion of Blair Scott is “shared by many.”

Glasser’s complaints about Scott are not only limited to his opinion of Scott as a comedian. Glasser wrote, of Scott’s comedic routine,

I’ll give the main highlights:

* Started off the set by saying something along the lines of “Black people, tell the white people it’s okay to laugh.” Basically saying, not only am I about to be racist, but I’d like to enlist the minority members of the audience to endorse my racism and say it’s okay. Then did some material that played off of fairly uninteresting stereotypes, i.e., “black people can’t swim.”

* Spent several minutes about his notion that vaginas are disgusting, and rattled off a list of his favorite euphemisms for them, such as “meat curtains”. Joked about how all the single men at the con want to get laid, and the women have too many standards, and guys just want to see the “open for business sign.”

* Referenced Richard Carrier’s talk in a closing “joke” that went something like “Just remember guys, don’t go to a feminist convention and say they’re all hot babes.” Seriously, that was his last line, which is traditionally supposed to be the funniest part of the set… and it wasn’t even particularly a joke.

Numerous people walked out. There were laughs, however. I think that inasmuch as Matt spoke to Blair personally, and David is sympathetic to the concerns, it’s hopefully going to be a learning experience for him.

Numerous portions of American Atheists’ conference policy, then, were violated, if Glasser’s reporting of Scott’s comedic routine is accurate.

According to the 2012 revised conference policy, “Blatant instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other stereotyping and harmful behaviors should be reported to conference staff immediately.” Additionally,

American Atheists does not tolerate harassment of or by conference participants, speakers, exhibitors, volunteers, or staff in any form. 

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion

Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately. Anyone violating this policy may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference (without a refund) at the discretion of the conference organizers.

The logic is inescapable: Scott’s remarks constituted harassment (since harassment is defined, in the conference policy, as “offensive verbal comments…”) and should have been reported to conference staff immediately. Scott should have been asked to stop his “harassing behavior” and “expected to comply immediately.” Blair also, since he was in violation of the policy, should have “be[en] sanctioned or expelled from the conference (without a refund) at the discretion of the conference organizers.” According to the conference policy, even though Blair Scott was a comedian ( in addition to a conference participant and/or speaker), his “harassment,” in respect to American Atheists, should not be tolerated in any form.

This should indeed, as Glasser notes, be a “learning experience” because the conference policy was outright violated. Blair Scott was not to my knowledge — as the policy suggests — sanctioned, expelled, or asked to stop his “harassing behavior.” His “harassing behavior” was also likely not “reported to conference staff immediately.”

In fact, American Atheists, contrary to its conference policy which states that harassment is not tolerated in any form, tolerated Blair’s remarks – and not only tolerated the remarks, one may argue, but rather approved of and facilitated Scott’s remarks because they invited him to perform at the 2013 conference as one of the feature performers. Scott’s act, according to reporting, was allowed to conclude and presumably was uninterrupted.

To be clear, I am not ‘offended’ by Scott’s comedy – and actually enjoy Scott’s inclusion at the conference. My problem is not with Scott’s comedy, but rather with American Atheist’s inconsistency pertaining to their conference policies they so graciously trumpet. American Atheists should follow the letter of their policies and not invite comedians which would violate their policies. What is the point — anyway — of writing policies if they will not be enforced by conference staff and, even worse, if violations to the policies are welcomed?

American Atheists’ conference policy — despite its revisions, enduring of criticism, vetting by feminist bloggers, praise from feminists, trumpeting of importance – is a failure because it is impractical and, on multiple occasions  is unenforced as written. American Atheists shows blatant disregard for its policy because it tolerates, approves of, and facilitates instances of indisputable policy violations.

I can’t help but think that these conference policies are not taken seriously by American Atheists, but rather are the results of placation and pandering to a vocal group of feminist bloggers (who also happened to, at least in part, examine the policy before it was released). If American Atheists is going to have a conference policy and trumpet its importance, they ought to stick to the policy’s rules as written and address violations as the conference policy stipulates rather than changing the rules mid-stream (as was the case with the photography and cell-phone use) or inviting comedians to perform who would violate the policy.

It’s time for American Atheists — and other secular organizations — to rethink their commitment to conference policies and, if conference policies for whatever reason must exist, radically transform their policies. The policies, as we have seen at least with American Atheists’, do not eliminate violations – and especially do not when the conference organizers and presenters, like those at American Atheists’ 2013 conference, are directly responsible for policy violations.

Update: Blair Scott spoke about his routine on the A-News podcast, specifically addressing use of ‘meat curtains.’

  • http://twitter.com/Eshto Ryan Grant Long

    HAHAHA silly. And what happened to the cast of the Atheist Experience, anyway. Were they always easily offended, joyless PC police?

    • http://skepticink.com/justinvacula/ Justin Vacula

      Well, Martin Wagner, at least, is happy to employ male shaming:

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/axp/2013/04/06/aacon13-an-object-lesson-in-building-communities/#comment-93291

      “Yeah, because every time I hear some basement-dwelling 35-year-old virgin whine about how feminism is “ruining the atheist movement,” I think, “By golly, I’ve never heard anything so RATIONAL in all my life.”

      • http://twitter.com/Eshto Ryan Grant Long

        Martin is a stud, he gets all the sex.

        • blondein_tokyo

          First, Justin complains about “male shaming”. Then you agree with him by shaming a male? That’s awfully hypocritical.

  • http://karlaporter.com/ Karla Porter

    Justin – You have this certain intolerance for hypocrisy.

  • Pitchguest

    Damn great article, Justin. I’m disappointed in David Silverman. I thought he would do better.

  • http://twitter.com/jfigdor Jonathan Figdor

    Isn’t the more logical conclusion that AA should work harder to enforce its conference policies? I appreciate you pointing out their failure in implementation, but concluding that we ought to abandon conference policies altogether is rather bizarre.

    • http://skepticink.com/justinvacula/ Justin Vacula

      I also offer

      “It’s time for American Atheists — and other secular organizations — to rethink their commitment to conference policies and, if conference policies for whatever reason must exist, radically transform their policies.”

      If the policies are needed for some reason, restructuring can work even though I would likely still have issues.

  • Joe Zamecki

    Oh he’s funny…now anyway. ;)

  • http://twitter.com/zerodash Gregory Shefler

    For a group that is so dismissive of religious people being offended, Atheists sure are easy to offend- and they sure as hell seem to whine to an extent that would give even the tenderest religious person a run for their money.

    Pot meets Kettle. Again.

    • Sunny

      It’s why I’m an atheist and skeptic, but avoid the organized groups like Ebola. Too many broom handles up too many asses. Also, rampant zero skepticism of ideologies. I’m not into faith based politics. If you call yourself any political label, you are not a skeptic, you are part of a religion.

  • Kevin Solway

    “Harassment” means annoying or tormenting someone persistently.

    It *doesn’t* mean saying something that a person finds offensive.

    Where does the American Atheists get off totally rewriting the dictionary and redefining words?

    • blondein_tokyo

      They know this perfectly, which is why Blair’s act wasn’t considered harassment and why he wasn’t kicked out of the conference. It’s Vacula who is redefining the language in the policy, so that he can pursue his agenda of accusing the AA of hypocrisy. That is what he has been doing all along, and man…it is getting seriously OLD.

      • http://skepticink.com/justinvacula/ Justin Vacula

        Did you even read my post? I used the definitions provided by the policy; I did not redefine anything. I hold AA to their own standards and definitions.

        “The logic is inescapable: Scott’s remarks constituted harassment (since harassment is defined, in the conference policy, as “offensive verbal comments…”) and should have been reported to conference staff immediately. Scott should have been asked to stop his “harassing behavior” and “expected to comply immediately.” Blair also, since he was in violation of the policy, should have “be[en] sanctioned or expelled from the conference (without a refund) at the discretion of the conference organizers.” According to the conference policy, even though Blair Scott was a comedian ( in addition to a conference participant and/or speaker), his “harassment,” in respect to American Atheists, should not be tolerated in any form.”

        • blondein_tokyo

          Yes, I read it all the way through. And honestly? I think you are being facetious, because I really don’t see how anyone could possibly misunderstand the difference between a comedian making offensive jokes that some people (who chose to come to his show) find offensive, and a person purposefully using offensive language in order to intimidate and harass. Do you really need that difference explained to you? Really? Do you need me to explain why George Carlin is funny, and why a guy I don’t know coming up behind me and salaciously whispering “shit piss cunt cocksucker motherfucker and tits” in my ear isn’t?

          I didn’t think so. I think you’re a smart guy, and as a smart guy, you perfectly well understand the difference. What I think you are doing is pretending to misunderstand so that you can use this to continue your vendetta against sexual harassment policies. If you come back at me and tell me that you really do think offensive jokes by a comedian and harassment are analogous, you are either being intellectually dishonest, or I was wrong and you aren’t as smart as I originally assumed you were.

          • http://www.justinvacula.com Justin Vacula

            Blonde, I am simply using the definitions provided by American Atheists in their conference policy. According to their definitions, Blair’s words constitute harassment or harassing behavior. The policy says,

            “American Atheists does not tolerate harassment of or by conference participants, speakers, exhibitors, volunteers, or staff in any form.

            Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race,
            religion.

            Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply
            immediately. Anyone violating this policy may be sanctioned or expelled
            from the conference (without a refund) at the discretion of the
            conference organizers.”

            Since Blair uttered “offensive verbal comments…” his actions constitutite harassment or harassing behavior. Harassment and harassing behavior and clearly defined and Blair’s actions constitute this.

            As you note, there is a difference between offensive verbal comments in comedy and other behavior outside of the context. I agree. The problem, though, is American Atheists’ policy which does not make this distinction and considers all offensive verbal comments to be harassment.

            I’m not pretending to misunderstand anything, but rather am going with the policy as written – as this is what is being considered.

            I wrote the following in the post which should further clarify my position,

            “To be clear, I am not ‘offended’ by Scott’s comedy – and actually enjoy
            Scott’s inclusion at the conference. My problem is not with Scott’s
            comedy, but rather with American Atheist’s inconsistency pertaining to
            their conference policies they so graciously trumpet. American Atheists
            should follow the letter of their policies and not invite comedians
            which would violate their policies. What is the point — anyway — of
            writing policies if they will not be enforced by conference staff and,
            even worse, if violations to the policies are welcomed?”

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Franklin-Bacon/1403711134 Franklin Bacon

          In religion, one can obey the letter of the law but entirely miss the spirit of the law. This is called “legalism.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/DJbeestie Brian Allen

    It’s just a comedy routine why is everyone so easy to offend and you can hear Blair talk about it on the newest episode of A-News http://a-news.apartmentj.com/?p=893 He even talks about the particular meat curtains joke.
    this whole hyper PC part of atheism makes me wish i had never started activism. Time to go back to making dick jokes while not believing in gods 8======D

    • http://skepticink.com/justinvacula/ Justin Vacula

      Thanks! I welcome comedy from Blair and am glad they had him. It’s just too bad this conference policy are incompatible with Blair’s comedy act.

  • sinmantyx

    I made a suggestion at the time that the word “offensive” should be replaced with “abusive” when this was being discussed; so that it would be more clear. PZ and a few others agreed; but the consensus among the people involved in that conversation (just a discussion in a comments section, a long time ago) seemed to be that since the word “offensive” was written in the context of “harassment” that the meaning was pretty obvious.

    I don’t really see how changing one word to a synonymy with slightly different connotations, in line with the spirit of the policy as it was developed would constitute “radically transform[ing] their policies” but it would remove the opening presented for persistent willful misinterpretation of the policy’s intent from bloggers that “can’t help but think” a whole mess of shit about a bunch of people and think “charitable reading” is telling stories to under-privileged children at the public library.

    Just sayin’ – I think the horse is dead.

    • blondein_tokyo

      “persistent willful misinterpretation” – you took the words right out of my mouth. Two thumbs up. :)

  • Bridget Gaudette

    Damn dude…

  • Trevor

    I agree that this type of language should be banned from the convention itself, but to say that a comic cant use offensive language and stereotypes? Then we wouldn’t have comics. No George Carlin or Lennie Bruce. So if you want to hate his routine, feel free. Personally, I have never seen a funny comic at an atheist convention. But to try to censor a comic’s right to be offensive – that’s what they do. So go off about how unfunny he was, but to cry foul because a comic used foul language or offensive stereotypes smacks of the PMRC and “moral majority” days. And I highly recommend you never watch a comic again. You may be offended.

    • blondein_tokyo

      I totally agree. No one gets special protection from being offended. But it works the other way, too – no one gets special protection from criticism. And that includes comics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/corey.janzen.9 Corey Janzen

    The battle is the same as always. Those who deal rationally with the reality at hand and the “moral” crusaders who act blindly from preconceptions. Good for drawing due attention Justin.

  • blondein_tokyo

    This is even more ridiculous than your last post, Justin. The AA know very well how to interpret and implement their own policy. You are the one redefining the language of the policy to make “offensive language” by a comedian analogous to “harassment”. That the AA felt the comedian was “offensive” and not “harassing” shows that they understand the difference. You simply are pursing an agenda here, and interpreting the policy to support your own bias so that you can pursue this ridiculous agenda you have against these policies.

    • http://skepticink.com/justinvacula/ Justin Vacula

      Did you even read my post? I used the definitions provided by the policy; I did not redefine anything. I hold AA to their own standards and definitions.

      “The logic is inescapable: Scott’s remarks constituted harassment (since harassment is defined, in the conference policy, as “offensive verbal comments…”) and should have been reported to conference staff immediately. Scott should have been asked to stop his “harassing behavior” and “expected to comply immediately.” Blair also, since he was in violation of the policy, should have “be[en] sanctioned or expelled from the conference (without a refund) at the discretion of the conference organizers.” According to the conference policy, even though Blair Scott was a comedian ( in addition to a conference participant and/or speaker), his “harassment,” in respect to American Atheists, should not be tolerated in any form.”

      • blondein_tokyo

        Yep. Read it; disagree with you; said why. I think my comment pretty much stands as-is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Franklin-Bacon/1403711134 Franklin Bacon

    Hey, Mom! The atheists are fighting again…

  • She Fights Like A Girl

    The thing with Scott wasn’t that he was offensive, or even that he wasn’t funny. And really, for me, it’s not about him “violating conference policy.” What was *offensive* about his routine (aside from the fact that it was vulgar for vulgar’s sake, rather than at all funny) was that it went directly contrary to so much of what the speakers and panels had just been discussing. That lead me to wonder, to whom is AA giving lip service? This was not an “equal time and representation” sort of a conference. This is definitely more of a “united front” situation. And yet, one of their featured presenters — additional ticket price and all — did this whole “vaginas are pooooowwwwerful” dumb thing.

    So, are speakers/entertainers chosen for their contributions or because they’re buddies?

    Blair Scott was not a known entity for me. Had there been an asterisk on the program explaining that his was “adult humor,” I probably wouldn’t have bothered, because “adult humor” is usually right on par with fart jokes. But I wanted the full con experience, so I bought the ticket, and I went. I was not mortally wounded, nor did I walk out. I did tell the person sitting next to me, “Oh man, this is going to cause a shit-storm.” I’m surprised I didn’t hear more about it, in fact — I was expecting twitter to light UP about it. I wonder why it didn’t. Because he’s part of the “in group”? I don’t know.

    To say comedians should be free to be offensive is not to say that comedians NEED to be offensive to be funny. The second comedian (the headliner), Keith Lowell Jensen, was quite funny, and grown up. I enjoyed his set quite a lot.

  • Pingback: Vacula and Blackford Address Harassment Policies | West Coast Atheist

  • Ian Pulsford

    Comedians fill the role of the jester of old. They are either the contrarian who helps the king think of the alternatives or the poor sap who get’s his noggin lopped off for pissing the king off too much. Please don’t play the part of the grumpy king who doesn’t think the jester amusing, the more subversive voices that can infiltrate the castle the better.

  • http://thetimchannel.wordpress.com/ The Tim Channel

    In the future, all speakers at these conferences should give their presentations with their penises locked into a mini guillotine with Skepchick holding the drop cord. We’ll work out the logistics of camera placement and other tech issues due to the necessary mechanical interferences of the “privilege equalizer” as the device has come to be known. Too extreme? They already have perfectly serviceable shock collars with remote control. Just trying to be helpful. Enjoy.