A Message to Thunderf00t
Sometimes, people are so indulged in a particular worldview or ideology, that they cannot step back to see how absurd their arguments are in defending that worldview or ideology. Sometimes, to defend a statement or argument, people go to great lengths, even absurd lengths.
For this, I bring to the attention of Thunderf00t his recent diatribe against Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers and those vocally in support of clear policies against harassment at skeptical, atheist and humanist conferences.
Starting with Thunderf00t’s first blog posting on FreeThoughtBlogs.com about this subject, titled “Misogynist!!!” It begins with a /b/ meme about women belonging in the kitchen. A joke if one wants to be light-hearted. Definitely not one if the purpose is to show that you have a serious point to make about the subject of sexism or misogyny. So far, a bad start.
Thunderf00t says that a good argument stands on its merits, not on how many times you can call someone a misogynist, and if you had a worthwhile argument, why not just present it? I would add that if one had a good argument, one could present it with meaningful facts, not with personal experiences, anecdotes, generalizations, straw men, truth by votes, and so forth. Unfortunately, Thunderf00t employs all of these in his attempts to show that he’s right, and PZ Myers and others are wrong.
He continues that an accurate assessment of a problem is the first step towards moving towards an appropriate solution. How does he accomplish this? Immediately after, he says, “from a strategically point of view sexual harassment at conferences really is a non-issue.”
Strategically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, relates to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them. I hardly see how this adverb relates to sexual harassment at conferences.
He then says that the conference scene is mostly redundant. That, I could agree with. And there’s a reason why it’s redundant: Hardly anyone can travel to many of these conferences. Many people have to spend their own money, take time off work, make plans, just to attend them. Going to more than one would be impractical to many. Instead of deciding whether to see guest A who goes to just one con a year or guest B who goes to just one con a year, many popular speakers and guests go to several, around the world. This makes it much easier on those who want to go to a convention to see one closer to home and/or at a more appropriate time to take off from work.
People also go to conventions to meet others like themselves. To meet up with friends they only know from online. To have an excuse to travel. These are fine goals that are over and above what the convention offers. Conferences can be redundant compared to what one can get online, but some people do enjoy seeing people in the flesh, and seeing special guests and speakers live.
Thunderf00t then states that a large conference is a couple of thousand people. The Global Atheist Conference had over 4000 people this past year. For atheist conferences, that does seem to be on the high side. Compared to fan conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con International, it is dwarfed by attendance numbers in the six digits.
For all of this, Thunderf00t says that if your primary focus is on the conference scene, then in the internet age, it’s probably misplaced. This is the type of argument that Thunderf00t uses more often in his complaints. If it’s not a majority, if it’s not the primary anything, then no one needs to worry about it.
Sorry, Thunderf00t, but it simply doesn’t work that way. Atheists are a minority. By your logic, no one needs to worry about atheists. See? By your logic, your voice would get silenced.
He continues that by his personal experience, sexual harassment affects only a very significant minority of attendees. If Thunderf00t won’t accept personal experience as evidence for anything supernatural, why should anyone accept his personal experience as evidence that his argument has any credence? Plus, Thunderf00t is a man. Most sexual harassment is directed at women.
Let’s take what Tim O’Reilly, a major voice in the technical community, penned regarding sexual harassment at technical conferences:
“We’ve been contacted recently about issues of sexual harassment at technical conferences, including at Oscon . . . At O’Reilly we take those issues very seriously. While we’re still trying to understand exactly what might have happened at Oscon or other O’Reilly conferences in the past, it’s become clear that this is a real, long-standing issue in the technical community. And we do know this: we don’t condone harassment or offensive behavior, at our conferences or anywhere. It’s counter to our company values. More importantly, it’s count to our values as human beings.”
Continuing, “Even more alarmingly, we’ve heard accounts of female attendees having to put up with stalking, offensive comments, and unwanted sexual advances. I’d like to borrow a line from the Flickr Community Guidelines, which use the term Creepiness as follows: ‘You know that guy. Don’t be that guy.’ If we hear that you are that guy, we will investigate, and you may be asked to leave.
“Please bring any concerns to the immediate attention of the event staff, or contact our VP of Conferences, Gina Blaber, at email@example.com. We thank our attendees for their help in keeping the event welcoming, respectful, and friendly to all participants.”
That posting was written a few weeks after Noirin Plunkett, technical writer at Google, blogged the following:
“I’m scared to go to OSCON or the Community Leadership Summit this year.
“After I was assaulted last year, an awful lot of people pointed out that if I go into dangerous situations, I should expect bad things to happen, and that if I don’t want bad things to happen, I shouldn’t go into dangerous situations.
“I was harassed at OSCON & CLS last year. I got a lot of grief after I wrote about my experience at ApacheCon. And I fully expect that some of the people responsible for both of those things will be at OSCON & CLS this year.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that I’ll be able to get through this year’s conference without being harassed again, and O’Reilly don’t seem to be willing to assure me that I’m wrong. But worse, I genuinely get the impression that if anything does go wrong, if I do get harassed, that O’Reilly don’t want to know, they don’t care, and they won’t do anything to help me, to help prevent it happening again, to help prevent it happening to someone else.
“A very smart friend of mine reminded me that fear is not a good driver, and suggested that I consider whether OSCON is valuable and whether I can send a positive message by attending.
“I’ve been looking forward to speaking. My slides have been rewritten from a previous version of this talk that was very well received, and I think they’re a really good deck. It’s a topic I care about, and I love being able to share my knowledge. Plus, I’m expecting a couple of potential employers to be there, as well as many friends.
“And aside from that, there are so many talks I want to see, often several at once! There are people I want to catch up with, and parties I’m looking forward to. So yeah, OSCON is valuable to me.”
She finishes with this, “And to those of you who’ve offered to join my posse, I’m grateful, but I was assaulted at ApacheCon in a bar with dozens of my friends, so I don’t assume that even the best posse will keep me safe.”
This is a passionate woman who loves speaking at conferences. She wanted to go to OSCON. She wanted to speak. She wanted to show that there are women who are in the industry.
But she felt as though no one was taking her complaint seriously. No one cared. And would it happen again? Would returning say that it was okay to assault her?
Her plea that she wanted to go to a con for the majority of things that were positive were cast in shadow for something that happened only for a minute amount of the conference. One event was threatening to keep her from returning compared to the majority that was great for her.
Her story and others were loud enough to prompt one of the biggest voices in the technical field, and the man in charge of the company that bears his name, to state unequivocally that harassment will not be tolerated.
Yes, Thunderf00t, it’s that important to speak up, to assure attendees that their worries and complaints will be taken seriously, even if they are a minority voice, even if what happens is a tiny fraction of what goes on at these conferences.
But when PZ Myers and others push for atheist, skeptic and humanist organizations to take the same approach that Tim O’Reilly has for his technical conference, you say that it’s really no big deal and not worth discussing.
You’re telling the Noirin Plunketts of the world that what happened was trivial and not worth discussing. You’re telling them that it happens so little, so why should we have a dialogue about it at all.
You are that guy. Don’t be that guy.
Your personal experience is meaningless. You know whose personal experience matters when discussing something that happened at a conference? Someone who had that something happen to him or her. If it hasn’t happened to you, Thunderf00t, why does your opinion on the matter interest anyone? Even if you have viewerships higher than the largest atheist con, popularity does not make truth.
You also say that you know women who went to a particular conference last year who said that conference was the cleanest one yet. And? Anecdotes are not facts. Even you should know this. So why did you bother bringing it up? Again, the opinions that really matter in discussing this are those from people who have experienced it.
Further, you say that really it’s only like one guy in 100-1000, and maybe the odd girl, too, who causes all the problems. Let’s tackle this.
If it’s really such a small number, and it’s a repeat offender, then having a clear reporting system in place will make it easy to ensure that the person does not return to the conference. The problem gets reduced rather easily. Yet, with a recent flap from an organizer saying that he was not aware of any incidents of harassment being reported, even though several women spoke up saying they had reported incidents to the organization, it shows that there isn’t a clear reporting system in place. It says to those women either that their complaints weren’t treated seriously, or that somehow they never got investigated.
Those women were marginalized. Why would they think that if something more serious happened, there would be anything done about it?
If it’s really only a couple of guys and/or gals causing the problem, and no one does anything to say their behavior isn’t welcome from the conference side, how will the problem ever stop? Does it need to become stalking? Where a guy follows a woman from a speech, from a bar, from a restaurant, to her room, to her car, to the bathroom? Maybe he’ll go a bit farther the next time? If the conference turns a blind eye, then why should women feel safe?
Where do you draw the line between what’s not worth talking about, and what should be discussed?
You say that this problem really only affects a minority of a minority. Fine, then let’s see what a minority of a minority in stats does.
According to a story by CBS News, nearly 90,000 women reported that they were raped in the United States in 2008. Another possible 75,000 went unreported. Only 25% of alleged rapists are arrested.
Women are also marginalized with law enforcement. CBS News investigated that 20,000 rape kits were never sent to crime labs to be tested. Twelve major American cities, including Chicago, Oakland and Baltimore, have no idea of how many rape kits in their storage are untested.
The National Institute of Justice says that 17.6% of women surveyed said that they were victims of a completed or attempted rape, while only 3% of men surveyed said they were victims of such.
We’re not talking about a minority of a minority as though it’s unimportant. Women do live in fear of being raped. More than 1 in 6 in the United States have been raped. So if women feel threatened by sexual harassment, there’s a fairly good reason why.
Thunderf00t continues that he has a female friend who attends many such events as TAM and that the recent TAM was the best ever in this fashion. Conclusion? This really isn’t a big problem!
This is marginalizing those women who were harassed. Because Thunderf00t’s friends and he himself say it’s not a problem, it’s not a problem.
If even one woman gets sexually harassed and stops going to a conference, that’s one less person part of that community. That’s one more story that gets told. That’s one more harasser who feels that nothing wrong was done.
Thunderf00t then says such problems can be dealt with quickly and discretely without spoiling the fun for everyone else.
First, women had reported these issues regarding TAM. TAM’s organizers said publicly that no such reports happened. Those women who did try to have it dealt with quickly and discretely got a slap in the face. And what should those in the minority do when their voices aren’t heard? Take it to the biggest audience around, the internet. And that’s what they did.
They got the voice of people like PZ Myers. It had to come out into the open, because it wasn’t being dealt with quickly and discretely.
Second, spoiling the fun for everyone else? Talking about sexual harassment that happened is spoiling your fun?
Thunderf00t, don’t be that guy.
He then argues what is causing a dramatic drop in female attendance at TAM: people showcasing that speaking out about what happened gets people trolling them. Highlighting these comments as representative of the conduct at such conferences is reckless and counterproductive to such a cause.
That’s right . . . Thunderf00t really is arguing that by highlighting that people are crass, crude assholes, it makes it seem like the community for which the conferences are focused have vocal crass, crude assholes. But we shouldn’t do that, because it’s bad for the community.
If it’s the community thinking that they can treat women like this, that they can threaten to rape them as jokes, that they can try to make a “serious” post about sexism starting with a joke about how women belong in the kitchen, then women being vocal about how this is wrong is appropriate. If the community wants to be a bunch of immature men who think that talking about sexual harassment is spoiling the fun for everyone else, then why should women want to be part of that community?
Thunderf00t, you’re showing that you are one of the people that these women want to avoid going to these conferences!
Thunderf00t also says that if the threats were serious, why don’t they call law enforcement? As with the stats above, sexual assaults are not taken seriously by law enforcement. If women have had any alcohol, they are taken even less seriously.
Leaving it to law enforcement means that women need to have concrete proof, do no drinking, and always be with many witnesses, just to be sure that they will be taken seriously. A bit of hyperbole, perhaps. But these women want to go to a conference for the conference. The conference should have policies in place to let them know that they are welcome there without fear that they will be harassed, or worse, without the conference doing something about it.
Tim O’Reilly got it. Why can’t the atheist, secular and humanist community do the same?
Thunderf00t then says that if a woman is in a bar at a conference, they should expect others to have fun with them. After all, he says, “it’s a bar! And those are the rules of engagement in bars, as the old saying goes, if you are gonna eat tuna, you gotta expect some bones!”
Really, Thunderf00t? Women should expect to be harassed or worse because it’s a bar and that’s what is expected of them at bars?
He also says that giving people a list of what they can and can’t do is a killjoy for the civil, honest respectable majority.
Let that sink in. Telling people that they cannot sexually harass other participants is a killjoy for the civil, honest respectable majority? If Thunderf00t’s idea of a civil, honest, respectable person is one who gets to grope or handle a woman without consent from that woman first, then be warned, women, to stay the hell away from Thunderf00t if you see him near a bar. After all, he makes it clear as day . . . If he’s in the bar, and so are you, when you eat tuna, expect some bones.
In the next blog post Thunderf00t offers, “FFS PZ Myers, enough with the strawmen!” Thunderf00t takes to task several strawmen argument he sees from PZ Myers. Only he follows these up with one of his own. Thunderf00t takes the message that having a conference spell out clear-cut policies against sexual harassment, including ways to report them, means that it’s a killjoy for “civil, honest respectable folks.” By bringing up the example of Thunderf00t biting the leg of a woman, as never having to consult her or apply for permission from the conference. Because asking for consent would have killed the moment.
Only that that the woman in the photo, identified as “MyLegMyChoice,” says that it was fun between two consenting adults. She said that all of his attention was invited that night.
Except Thunderf00t said that getting consent would have killed the moment. Apparently not. And not one person has ever argued that the conference had to be consulted before touching, groping, and more had to occur. Just between the two or more people participating in the event.
And, let’s put it another way. If Thunderf00t is suggesting that this kind of behavior should be allowed without consent, then what’s to stop men from groping a woman’s breasts, vagina, ass or any other part of her without consent, and turning around and saying, “Sorry, you’re in a bar. It’s all in good fun.” The woman needs to say no to each and every guy who wants to do this, else it’s allowed to happen? Because it’s in a bar?
Don’t be that guy, Thunderf00t.
And, finally, Thunderf00t put together a video asking his audience to weigh in on who’s right, either him or PZ Myers. He asks . . . his own audience . . . to vote on whether he’s right or PZ Myers. And then blogged about the results showing that a majority of his viewing audience agrees with him.
Do you not see the problem with this, Thunderf00t? Okay, let’s put it a different way.
Eric Hovind asks his viewers whether creationism or evolution is right. He gets an overwhelming majority siding with him. Does that mean that creationism is right?
You ask for people’s “objective opinion.” There’s no such thing, Thunderf00t. The definition of objective is “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” It’s an oxymoron to say “objective opinion.”
To summarize, Thunderf00t, you were wrong on many fronts. You used tactics that you would tear apart if someone used to support claims against science. So why on earth, being a non-expert, using personal experience and anecdotes, and using a loaded poll, do you think that your arguments had any validity?
Why aren’t you trying not to be that guy, Thunderf00t?