For those of who who have neglected to keep close tabs on the misogynistic slagfight in the so-called “skeptics movement” — which started when Rebecca Watson suggested men not hit on women alone in elevators late at night, apparently the greatest assault on Reason since Urban VIII asked Galileo to tone down that whole heliocentrism thing — that misogynistic slagfight proceeds apace.
The most recent iteration of the thing, as far as I can tell with only cursory digging, is that women who attend skeptics’ meetings started comparing notes, and found that there were certain prominent male figures in the movement with whom many of said women had had unpleasant experiences ranging from sexual harassment to physical assault. Some of those women, and their non-women comrades, started talking about ways to address and correct this problem. As usual, when the women started talking about this issue publicly they were told by their detractors to “name names!” and then — when a couple people speculated as to how that might actually work —- accused of having a secret smear list with which to threaten prominent men. Jen McCreight provides a good summation of the dynamics of the discussion. The idea of a list was dropped very quickly.
But not before the gasoline hit the warm coals. People who were working through possible approaches to the problem of harassment in good faith were the recipients, once again, of nasty insults, physical threats both explicit and implicit, gendered and racial epithets, and other such niceties.
Some of the objections were couched in civil language, however. One of those was that such a list would be compiled by people acting as prosecutor, judge and jury, and that contravened the principle of the presumption of innocence, the bedrock of jurisprudence in some countries with Internet access. People backed off on the notion of a Jerk List in rather short order. Then discussion centered around having event-sponsoring organizations adopt specific sexual harassment policies, which would seem a likely and reasonable solution to anyone who’s held a job at any point since about 1997. But wouldn’t you know it, the same arguments got trotted out against that idea as well, claiming that such a policy would “convict” men for the crime of “flirting.” And similar arguments.
As it happens, I actually got called up to jury duty recently and was presented with a really good illustration of why these really aren’t sound arguments. The case in question was a drunk driving arrest, and the prosecuting attorney was quizzing us prospective jurors along a line that clearly indicated that the physical evidence for her case wasn’t what she hoped it would be. She asked us all what standard we used to tell if a friend at a party was drunk enough to take his car keys away. Would we insist on a Breathalyzer test? or take a blood sample? We admitted as how we probably wouldn’t insist on a blood alcohol level in that hypothetical situation. Then she asked another hypothetical involving a kid promised a trip to Disneyland on Saturday if she wasn’t sick. (Yeah, it seemed exactly that far out of left field at the time, too.) Kid wakes up Saturday morning burning up, then runs to the bathroom and vomits. Would we insist on getting a firm diagnosis from a doctor, maybe some blood work and throat cultures, before canceling the trip to Disneyland? No, of course we wouldn’t.
The prosecutor asked if any of us had any questions about the Disneyland story. I raised my hand. “I’m not sure how it’s really relevant,” I admitted. “We’re not talking about a party or a trip to Disneyland here. This defendant’s facing criminal charges in a court of law. If we were discussing whether he was drunk at the time and therefore we’re not taking him to Disneyland, that’d be one thing, we could use our judgement about a small amount of evidence and he could say “yeah whatever.” But here we need a much higher standard of proof. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”
She did, and she kicked me off the jury. But that argument works in the other direction, too. The presumption of innocence is a crucial protection for the accused in a criminal trial. But having a public discussion about notable figures in the skeptical movement from whom multiple women have been subject to unpleasant and inappropriate behavior? Not a criminal trial. The accused might suffer loss of respect. He might not get invited back to speak at similar events. That might mean a loss of income. All that would undoubtedly suck. Life is like that sometimes, when your actions have unpleasant consequences.
Still, though: not a criminal trial, and someone discussed publicly as a person who bothers women has had precisely zero rights violated. That person might still retain the option to bring libel or slander charges, which would compel the accusers to find corroboration of their charges for the record. Truth is a defense, after all, so a savvy defense attorney would likely find several other women claiming familiar experiences with the defendant and persuade them to state their stories for the record. As skeptics always look for evidence pro or con when discussing contentious matters, the accused would certainly welcome this process.
Though you know what would be really fair? What would really protect the rights of the accused to being presumed innocent? We could make sure they’re brought up on charges. Then the whole spectrum of their rights would be guarded diligently. They’d get to face their accusers in court. They’d get to be presumed innocent unless the evidence brought against them on the record, in front of a judge and possibly a jury, was sufficient to erase reasonable doubt.
And all of this would happen in a setting designed by the some of the most important philosophical forebears of the skeptical movement, namely Enlightenment philosophers. What Real Skeptic could object to that?
Barring that, though none of these quasi-legal arguments have any bearing on the discussion in the skeptic’s movement. No courts are involved, so the arguments are irrelevant.
I mean, it’s a lovely thing to be able to give every person you encounter the benefit of the doubt. But it’s no one’s business but mine if I decide, in my mind, that any man who complains about sexual harassment policies poses some a threat to women.
Which I generally do decide.
In any event, there are two salient character-related facts among all this discussion.
One is that the skeptics movement contains a significant group of men who are among the whiniest little shits I have ever had the nonpleasure to encounter. Note I said “among.” I cannot declare definitively that the skeptics movement contains the whinyshittiest men. They have serious competition in the world of gaming,for instance. (Though there’s a chance that demographic overlaps some, the same way the Skeptics in Buffalo in the 1970s overlapped significantly with the Society for Creative Anachronism. And the D&D crowd. And the Monty Python fan club. And Mensa. And the homebrewers’ club. Really, the reason I didn’t become an active skeptic in my teens was that I wanted more than one group of friends.)
The other, happier salient fact about the character of some involved in this discussion is that a group of people feeling aggrieved and frustrated by systemic bad treatment at the hands of a distinct group of individuals 1) realized they had a list of repeat offenders and 2) did not publicize that list. Not only is this a clear indication of their patience, forgiving nature, and palpable desire to reach a solution optimal for everyone concerned, it is also very likely the only time something like that has ever happened in the entire history of the Internet. If this group acted according to internet traditions set down by any other group online, be that other group feminists, the Daily Kos crowd, enviros, or—let’s face it—the men in the skeptical movement complaining about people complaining about sexism—then “hitchensgrabbedmyass.tumblr.com” would have been online in about forty seconds, and linked on io9 about a minute and a half after that. The forbearance of skeptical women in this matter has been nothing short of amazing.
In other words, what we have here is a group of men in the skeptical movement, either rampant misogynists or those happy to give them cover, who project onto their critics the personal failings they exhibit in spades. They say arguments about harassment are spurious and harass those who make them. They claim their critics are uncivil and issue rape threats in response. They viciously slam the critics for “scaring women away from meetings,” and thus scare women away from meetings. They claim their feminist critics are acting irrationally, and they make the Time Cube guy look measured and cogent while doing so. They accuse their opponents of destroying skepticism, while — well, you get the idea.
And all because someone has the temerity to suggest, Galileo-style, that the universe doesn’t revolve around them. Some goddamn skeptics.
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