Loaded Guns and Empty Words

I’ve waited a while to write this, waiting to see how things have shaken out, but time is up for waiting. During Skepticon an incident occurred that involved one attendee threatening another with a loaded gun. The authorities were called as one would expect, and I guess the person was thrown out of Skepticon or agreed to leave.  This person will not be allowed back for future Skepticons.  Who was this person? I don’t know because right now that information is being kept private, except maybe if you’re a conference organizer.  Since it’s doubtful that any significant legal penalty will follow from this event, I’m not sure why the name is private.

Recently, my friend Sharon tweeted asking where the Skepticon response was, and was then added to the BlockBot for “lying”.  The lie? That Skepticon didn’t respond.  Well, she’s right, because the claimed response, was not from Skepticon itself but from Dave Muscato.  In fact, the post refers to Skepticon in the third person.  I don’t care about the Block Bot nonsense, but it did get me to go through and realize that Skepticon has not publically (correct me if I’m wrong) give a full account of the incident.  Why not?  I won’t hazard a guess here.  

So what can we learn here?  Harassment policies aren’t protection.  They’ve now become conference bling, something you brag about.  Safety? Not as high on the agenda now.  Also, harassment policies have morphed beyond safety and into statements of values.  However, reality is, they don’t protect you from anything.  They’re just empty words by themselves.

Now let me unpack this, because this is not a post taking glee in the incident or a total rejection of the ideals behind harassment policies.  I believe, though, that politics has once again ruined a positive idea and rendered it useless.

I couldn’t help but notice that before Women in Secularism II, Melody Hensley made a public invite to Hugo Schwyzer.  She tweeted the following to Schwyzer:

  • @hugoschwyzer Come to my conference of awesome secular feminists, Hugo!

  • @hugoschwyzer No one would be impolite. We have a conference harassment policy. It’s a safe place.

These tweets stuck out at me for two reasons.  I was surprised that Melody had no clue about Schwyzer’s less than questionable past, and because Schwyzer and his sleeping-with-his-students modus operandi exemplify how harassment policies aren’t actual protection.  I’m pretty sure he was aware that sleeping with his students violated his university’s harassment policy, but with a small chance at getting caught and suffering consequences, he did it anyway.  Also around this time, a lot of digital ink was spent accusing Justin Vacula of being a serial harasser.  While I personally found Justin’s antics surrounding Women in Secularism II to be annoying and trollish, there isn’t a shred of evidence that he’s ever harassed anyone, or been a threat.  Think about that, how Schwyzer was treated versus Justin.  Was actual safety on the mind, or was this just about politics

The conference that inspired me to write this post, was Skepticon.  Let’s take a look at the messy attempt to write a harassment policy.

Skepticon is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion. We do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form. Conference participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference without a refund at the discretion of the conference organizers.”

So, harassment is not allowed, but it’s also not defined in the first paragraph.  Maybe in the next paragraph:

“Harassment includes offensive verbal comments [related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religious identity], deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Assuming the absence of problematic behavior (intimidation, following, inappropriate physical contact, etc.), criticism or disagreement regarding an attendee’s belief structure will not be construed as harassment. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.”

Ah, finally we have some definitions, but it’s still just as messy.  What’s “offensive” ?  Or about about this paraphrased tautology:  “Harassment is harassing photography or recording”.    “Deliberate intimidation”?  Kind of vague.  I’m not sure why “stalking” and “following” needed to be two different things.  I understand and agree with stalking but … harassing following?   Offensive verbal comments about “religious identity” are harassment, but then again, criticism or disagreement regarding an attendee’s “belief structure” isn’t harassment.  A total mess.

“Additionally, exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.”

So, I understand where this is coming from.  This is about “Booth Babe” prevention, which, I do think is a good thing.  However, again, what is “sexualized clothing” ?  It’s left undefined, and I guess it’s “I’ll know it when Isee it” type of thing.  What constitutes “sexualized clothing” is probably different from generation to generation, too.  Just so vague.

What’s not in the policy is any concrete information about how well or not Skepticon will be equipped to handle actual safety incidents.  What’s the security personnel situation like?  When I went to college we had campus safety officers, but no police.  Is campus providing dedicated safety officers?  Was anyone trained?  So I look at this policy, see a lot of vague, undefined terms, and almost no mention of enforcement.  This policy wasn’t written for safety first, it was written to check off boxes and to be able to advertise, “See, we care about harassment”.

Conferences can and must do better than this.  I often reserve this only for the TSA, but the Skepticon harassment policy looks like, is security theatre..  So what are my suggestions?

  1. Stop beating around the bush, and separate your statement of values from your harassment policy.  “Offensive speech” is not by definition harassment, so stop trying to obfuscate the two.
  2. Make your policy simpler and stop trying to think of every possible attendee to include in your policy.   It’s impossible to write an all-encompassing policy so don’t bother.  Just make it clear that anyone not feeling safe or welcome for any reason, has someone to go to..
  3. Focus more on enforcement, both from a policy point of view, and the mechanics of enforcing.  Seek out expertise from actual experts.  Make sure everyone who attends your conference is aware of what kind of safety and law enforcement assets are available.
  4. Be transparent.  Report how many incidents you had and the type.  In some cases, this might require publicly naming people.  Like for instance, if someone aimed a loaded gun at someone.

I’m not sure that any conference lives up to my ideals (obviously they’re not required to), but I think if we can stop thinking about harassment policies as forms of advertisements and focus on actual safety, everyone wins.  If policies were magic, then we wouldn’t need police officers and jails.  Let’s do better than empty words.

Bad Writing Inspires Me

Last week I read the first few thousand words of someone’s first novel.  I won’t give too many details because I don’t think that’s fair, because this is really just my opinion but..it’s bad.  It’s really bad.  It’s very generic, cliche storyline, and features a scene that genuinely made me uncomfortable . It inspired me a whole lot.  Why?  Because she’s doing it.  She’s doing the work and challenging herself to write her first novel.  The things I complained about?  Who cares, really.  She’ll get better, she’ll clean the story up, and even if it’s a bad story, the next one will be better.  She’s being very public about it too, and that kind of guts is something I wish I had.  My next piece, I’ll only mention the title.  I’m not brave enough to put out the rough draft.  Kudos to her.

Earlier this year I read the first chapter of someone’s book, to see what all the fuss was about.  The chapter was free on Amazon so why not take a peek?  Well, I thought it was one of the worst things I’ve ever read.  It reminded me of something I wrote when I was a teenager when I was going for parody.  This author was not.  Her friends universally praised it publically, making me hope my friends would tell me my story was bad if it was indeed bad.  Odds are what you write is bad.  Why was this inspiring?  Because if she could do it, so could I.  I know I could write a story better than her, so what’s stopping me?  Nothing now, but it took a while to get there.

Now to be fair, “bad” is in the eye of the beholder.  I can’t honestly suggest I can be the arbiter of what is good and bad.  (Except for Nickelback.  They are bad.)  I just offer these small anecdotes to talk about inspiration.  Bad things inspire me because I think I can do better.  If other people find “bad” work to be enjoyable, then there is an audience for my work.  I should get it out there and find that audience.

My new story is coming along well.  I hope to put it out in the next couple weeks.  I don’t know if it’s good yet, but I do think my points are coming across.  I will only leave you with the title now: “74”. Look for it soon!


What to Do When You Feel Like Giving Up

Yesterday was almost the day that I bought a domain name, something like, skepticmovementdramaclock.com, and put up a page that said how many days since the last skeptic dustup.  It would be easy, because I could just up a page that said “Zero” and never touch it again.  Thats how I felt last night, when I was tempted to go full blown cynic, and say fuck it.  I took a deep breath, loaded Carol Tavris’s “Mistakes Were Made” onto my kindle, and walked away from the keyboard.  After reading the first 5% of the book, I was able to be relaxed enough to go to sleep.

I once thought that rifts could be healed, that time would soften people, and the trajectories of groups would once again merge on the same line of progress.  People warned me I was being too optimistic.  Turns out I was wrong.  Totally wrong.  My assertion has turned out to be Piltdown-esque, in its wrongness and self delusion.  That’s why I got so down at times last night.  Instead of people working together, and discussing difficult topics like adults, we have time spent on two dustups that are about as dumb as dumb can be.  In fact, if people tweeted about how the dustups were big deals, I probably unfollowed them.  I’m tired of it.  

So what’s left to do?  Well, unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, I have  a long list of people to just “write off” as lost causes.  I won’t expect them to improve their behavior or actions, but I remain open enough to be surprised.  There are websites that despite morbid curiosity will never be entered in any form in my web browser.  My social media lists will be trimmed and people who have little interest in moving forward, will probably be cut.  This will keep me a little saner.  I hesitate to call it a block list or any sort of boycott, but I have limited time that I can spend looking on social media sites anyway, and unless it’s necessary, I don’t need to be following everyone anyway.  This makes it a little easier to manage.

I will continue to work on Skeptunes, and this blog will find more and more updates I think as a way to keep my mind focused on the work.  I’ll be making a concerted effort to read more books that pertain to skepticism.  If I see a site or project in need of a few bucks, I’ll open my wallet.  Lastly, I’ll be sure to thank people more often for help and to let them know when they do good work.  I see others frustrated, too, as things become nastier and nastier, and everyone could use a pickup.

That’s what I do when I feel like giving up.  Retreat, reflect, retrench.


Is Skepticon Good For Skepticism?

Just having the name “Skeptic” or some sort of fragment of “skeptic” in your name is a popular thing to do.  I myself use “Skeptunes” as a name of a website.  Some people use it in a misleading way, namely people like Alex Tsakaris  who calls his podcast “Skeptiko” when it has less than nothing about skepticism.  I turn my eye to Skepticon, a conference which is held a few hour drive from me, but which I’ve never gone to or plan to go to.  I decided to look at the speaker list and see if it really had to do with skepticism, since it brands itself as the largest free skeptic conference in the world.  

Onward to the speaker list:

  • Seth Andrews, known as the Thinking Atheist.  Never read anything he’s written or heard him speak, therefore not interested.

  • Richard Carrier, self reports that he is renowned.  I’ve read his writings, but never heard him speak, therefore not interested.

  • Greta Christina, atheist writer.  I’ve read her blog posts, 1 chapter of her awful erotica book (one of the worst things I’ve ever read sincerely), but have never heard her speak, therefore, not interested.

  • John Corvino, never heard him speak, therefore, not interested.

  • JT Eberhard, mostly known as an atheist writer.  Never heard him speak, therefore, not interested.

  • David Fitzgerald, atheist writer.  Never heard him speak, therefore, not interested.

  • Debbie Goddard.  Mainly deals with secularism, and outside of a couple panels, I’ve never heard her speak, therefore, not interested.

  • Rebecca Hensler, secular activist.  Never heard her speak, therefore, not interested.

  • Amanda Knief, atheist.  Never heard her speak, therefore, not interested.

  • Keith Lowell-Jensen, atheist comedian.  Never heard his act, therefore ,not interested.

  • Amanda Marcotte is somehow list as skeptic superhero, even though, she doesn’t know much about skepticism, and is virtually unknown in the skeptic movement.  I’ve never heard her speak, therefore, not interested.

  • Hemant Mehta, known as a Friendly Atheist.  Never heard him speak, therefore, not interested.

  • Monica R. Miller.  Never heard her speak, therefore, not interested.

  • PZ Myers, mainly an atheist writer.  Never heard him speak on anything other than squid, so not interested.

  • Aron Ra, atheist writer.  Never heard him speak, therefore, not interested.

  • Shelly Segal, atheist.  Never heard her speak, therefore, not interested.

  • David Tamayo.  Never heard him speak, therefore, not interested.

  • Rebecca Watson, ex-skepticism promoter.  I have heard her speak, therefore, not interested.

So, in going down the list of guests one by one, there is almost no actual skepticism being discussed.  Atheism and secularism are not skepticism.  My conclusion is that since I’ve never gone to Skepticon, never plan to go to Skepticon, and have never heard the vast majority of speakers, I conclude that Skepticon is not good for skepticism, and they should change their name.


I’m Not Hyperskeptical, You’re Just Unreliable

 …was a great title to a great post I was writing about how just because you tell me something, no matter how earnest, it is usually not sufficient for me to just outright believe you.  I had a great example of how a prominent “critical thinker” couldn’t correctly relay facts to his or her readers because of their inability to see through their biases.  I even had a list of happenings that whenever they are written about, they are written about incorrectly.

And then I deleted every word of it.  Why?  Because for those who need to read and understand it, they would do neither.  It would probably been misconstrued by some as a justification to ignore complaints and accusations.  And lastly, after the events this week, when I struggled with the temptation to directly jump into the fray and still get blocked, I just don’t think it’s worth it.

Promoting skepticism is worth it of course.  The politics of power?  The constant stream of narcissistic social media drive by attacks?  None of that is worth it.  What I’m about to say is an unformed, unsupported idea that has popped into my head:  The Internet has been a terrible thing for the skepticism movement, and the good that the internet has done is being drowned out now.  I can’t back this up, it’s just my gut reaction that should be made into a hypothesis and researched.

So back to my beloved Skeptunes, back to reading my favorite skeptic blogs, and back to listening to skeptic podcasts I go.  I’ll hangout with the adults, the children can continue to go Lord of the Flies.