Understanding Harassment

Anti-Sexual Harassment Graffiti reading: No To...
Anti-Sexual Harassment Graffiti reading: No Touching allowed: Castration Awaits You (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The word "harassment" is being thrown around quite a bit these days in the online atheist community. I find this troubling for two reasons. First, accusations of harassment are highly inflammatory and typically lead to an abrupt end to any discussion in which they occur, followed by increased polarization by the parties involved in the discussion. When the accusations were truly warranted, this may be unavoidable; however, unwarranted accusations seem to be surprisingly common and can do real harm. Second, harassment has legal implications in that it is defined as a criminal offense in most jurisdictions. Because of this, we should exercise caution about using the term to describe all behavior we do not like and reserve it for the occasions where it is clearly appropriate (i.e., real harassment).

In this post, I will examine legal definitions of harassment, highlight the key components which appear to distinguish harassment from other objectionable behaviors, and begin to explore some of the most common accusations of harassment in the online atheist community to see what should be labeled as harassment and what should probably not.

Defining Harassment

Because of the legal implications of harassment, I believe it makes sense to begin by examining how the law defines harassment. I am not suggesting that we must restrict ourselves to a legal definition, but it at least gives us a place to start.

According to USLegal.com, legal definitions of harassment vary from state to state but it "is generally defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety." They go on to explain:
Harassment is unwanted, unwelcomed and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim. Harassing behavior may include, but is not limited to, epithets, derogatory comments or slurs and lewd propositions, assault, impeding or blocking movement, offensive touching or any physical interference with normal work or movement, and visual insults, such as derogatory posters or cartoons.
Having taken a close look at this definition, as well as some of the state-specific examples provided on the same page, a few shared features of the various definitions emerge. On this basis, I'd like to suggest that the following areas of overlap be considered relevant for any definition of harassment:
  • Harassment involves repeated, unsolicited behavior in which the target is demeaned, threatened, or offended in such a manner that a hostile environment is created for the target.
  • Harassment can involve speech (e.g., threatening statements, derogatory cartoons) as well as observable behavior (e.g., touching, physical interference with someone's movement).
  • Legal definitions of harassment emphasize the intent of the harasser. One of the ways they do this is by considering whether the behavior of the harasser could have served any other purpose besides the deliberate annoyance of the target. This appears to be particularly important when the behavior involves something other than a face-to-face interaction.
  • Legal definitions appear to exclude the offending of hypersensitive individuals by applying the reasonable person standard. That is, harassment is often described as behavior that would place a reasonable person in fear of physical injury or that would be extremely annoying or offensive to a reasonable person.
If we put these pieces together, we'd end up with an understanding of harassment as a pattern of repeated, behavior in which the harasser intentionally acts in such a manner that a reasonable person would find threatening, annoying, intimidating, alarming, or offensive. The behavior would need to have no other purpose besides impacting the target in this manner, and typically, the behavior would be intrusive in some way. If the target has to go out of his or her way to discover the behavior, odds are pretty good that it is not even close to harassment.

Behavior That is Clearly NOT Harassment

Some of the behavior I have seen being labeled as harassment that does not appear to warrant the label, no matter how objectionable it may be, includes the following:
  1. Using the #FtBullies hashtag on Twitter.
  2. Expressing disagreement with someone's position, no matter how cherished that opinion might be (e.g., one's religious beliefs or one's preferred brand of feminism).
  3. Wearing clothing with social or political messages, including those that are critical of a particular group, to a conference.
  4. Wearing "fake jewelry" to a conference.
  5. Inserting yourself into someone else's conversation and making absurd accusations against them.
  6. Using mockery or satire in one's work to lampoon public figures, call attention to relevant issues in the community, etc.
  7. Defending oneself against public criticism from others.
  8. Critiquing someone else's public work (e.g., writing a book review).
  9. Calling someone a misogynist because they had the nerve to disagree with Rebecca Watson.
  10. Running a silly parody account on Twitter.
  11. Accurately quoting someone.
  12. Making silly images to mock someone.
  13. Belonging to an Internet forum.
Behavior That is Clearly Harassment

Unfortunately, there have been some examples of behavior that would appear to meet most definitions of harassment. They include things like the following:
  1. Threatening someone with physical harm.
  2. Disseminating private information (or threatening to do so) about an individual without his or her consent for the purpose of harming the career or reputation of the target (this is sometimes referred to as doc dropping or doxing).
  3. Repeatedly initiating contact with an individual who has made a reasonable request not to be contacted (and who is not continuing to initiate contact with you).
  4. Repeatedly posting information that is intended to cause harm or distress to the target and inciting others to do the same.
  5. Following someone around at a conference and repeatedly touching them.
Behavior That Might Be Harassment Depending on the Circumstances

Not surprisingly, there are some behaviors that could be harassment in some circumstances but not others. A couple examples include:
  1. Filing a DMCA complaint against someone instead of first requesting a takedown of the material in question. As a one-time occurrence, this is probably not harassment. Were it to become a pattern, it might be deserving of the label.
  2. Ridiculing someone on Twitter. It may not be pretty, but it probably isn't harassment unless it continues long after the offender has been asked to stop, blocked, etc.
If you have observed other examples, either of behavior that is being called harassment that is clearly not, behavior that clearly is harassment, or behavior that might or might not be harassment depending on the circumstances around it, please feel free to share in the comments.