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.’