May 27, 2012

Atheist Headliners Behaving Badly

ConferenceYou've probably heard that an unspecified number of unidentified but assuredly high-profile male speakers at various atheist conferences have been accused of behaving badly. Evidently, these prominent men have not only sexually harassed female conference attendees but have also made remarks suggesting they feel entitled to do so.

This is upsetting but not particularly surprising. I have heard countless reports of this sort of behavior from my female graduate students returning from professional conferences that do not have anything to do with atheism. And I have observed some of the behavior myself at these conferences. So no, this is not limited to atheists in any way. It reflects much more pervasive problems with how some men treat women. Of course, that does not mean we should ignore it when it happens among atheists.

Generating Solutions

Much of the discussion around this issue has been solution-focused, as it should be. Some have suggested that those who have witnessed the behavior should name names, identifying the offenders to facilitate public shaming. Others have said that this would be a mistake and that the first step is to talk to these men privately first. Try to raise awareness and curb the behavior. Only if they refuse to take responsibility and change their behavior would they be identified and/or no longer invited to present at these conferences. I agree with those suggesting this second approach.

My approach would be to sit down with each of these men individually and inform them that complaints about their behavior have surfaced from several women at various conferences. I would remind them that a community which holds itself out as rational and as promoting equality will not tolerate this sort of behavior at its meetings. I would hope that they would agree and pledge to correct their behavior in the future.

What if this doesn't work and the bad behavior continues? I believe the next step would be to inform those who organize these conferences of the behavior of the identity of the men involved. The conference organizers would be told that the problem had already been brought to the attention of the men involved and that this had not resulted in a satisfactory solution. Hopefully, the conference organizers would then stop booking them. If not, then publicly naming them might be a suitable last resort.

Going Off Track

While most of the discussion has indeed emphasized finding effective solutions, some of it has veered close to going off track. For example, I find the suggestion that prominent atheist women are not naming names because they are afraid of being treated like Rebecca Watson unnecessary and possibly distracting. This isn't about Watson.

Suggesting that the only reason these women aren't identifying the men is because of what Watson went through strikes me as dishonest. I think that many of these women recognize that it makes sense to approach the offenders first and attempt to resolve the matter privately. I have read many posts suggesting exactly that. Those claiming that they aren't "naming and shaming" because the atheist community has no shame are getting off track.

I'm not saying the larger discussion about sexism in the atheist community is not a good one to have; it is. I'm saying that trying to have such a discussion at the same time we are tackling the issue of sexual harassment at conferences may complicate effective problem-solving.