Skeptech: Updating a Harassment Policy

Last year, Skeptech asked me to join their Safe(r) Spaces committee. I said, “Yes”, as I try to do whenever a student group asks me for help, and I’m really glad I did. One of the tasks of this committee was revising Skeptech’s harassment policy after having it in place for one conference. They started with the Geek Feminism Wiki’s sample policy, which worked well enough but wasn’t perfect, as templates almost never are.

I’ve been asked to comment on policies in the past, but this was the first time I had a hand in shaping a policy to meet specific needs. I learned a good deal. With the permission of Skeptech organizers, I want to give you a little peek into how the process went.

Feedback from organizers, speakers, and attendees was pulled together into a list of concerns. Those of us on the committee collected policies from other events that had impressed us, so we had a range of approaches and sample language to work from to solve any problems. Then we got together with a shared document and video hangout and got to work making a policy that fit Skeptech.

Our first consideration was inclusivity. The sample policy makes a good start, but it explicitly suggests adding your own specific concerns. So we did that. One of our members suggested a list that they’d seen in another venue that was more inclusive than last year’s list, so we stole it.

I particularly like the way it addresses issues around religious discrimination–of both sorts. There’s been a lot of argument in atheist circles about having religion included at all, whether this would put religious beliefs beyond criticism. Rather than using “religion” as a classification, Skeptech’s new policy uses “religious affiliation”. This means religious ideas are still on the table for criticism (though no one has to stay in a conversation with someone criticizing religious ideas). It also keeps people from lazily conflating affiliation and beliefs, something atheists are all too prone to do.

Beyond that, by including nationality and immigration status with religious affiliation, this policy covers the ways that racism is often hidden under other concerns and stereotypes. I appreciate that Skeptech, as an event sponsored by an atheist group, is setting a standard that religious skepticism won’t be used here as it is sometimes used by other atheists.

Because we’re all grownups, everyone got through last year’s conference talking about sex in generally respectful ways despite having a policy that declared sex off the table. There was a panel on sex on the internet that was scheduled early in the morning, so people who didn’t want to see it could just start their day later. There was a running gag about “salacious posture”, pulled from Zach Weinersmith’s talk on the Comics Code, that pushed some limits but seemed overall to be taken well. Still, we felt the new policy should address both.

The first part was very easy. Based on feedback from people who do talk about sex on stage as a scholarly or socially relevant topic, the Geek Feminism Wiki had crafted an exception to their policy for those who wanted it. The exception requires more work on the part of conference organizers to be sure they only grant an exception to people who won’t abuse it–they take on more risk and assume the responsibility if things go wrong–but Skeptech decided it was worthwhile to have these discussions.

Making sure that attendees could also discuss panels or talks like these was more difficult. We didn’t want to make it impossible to do without violating the policy, because we didn’t want any encouragements to violate policy. At the same time, we didn’t want people to treat the subject carelessly. In the end, we settled on wording that makes it the responsibility of those discussing sex to pay attention to whether the topic was welcome and to not discuss it in situations where it was unwelcome.

Zero Tolerance
You probably won’t notice any changes due to this discussion. The question was raised as to whether we should change descriptions of the consequences of violating the policy so they no longer referred to expulsion as a maximum penalty that “may” occur, as a deterrent to would-be violators. We didn’t do that, for multiple reasons, all of which revolve around making people comfortable reporting incidents.

Skeptech doesn’t want attendees who consider reporting violations of the policy to feel a responsibility for expelling someone from the conference. Attendees should be able to come to conference volunteers when they’re uncertain about something that’s just happened. They should be able to come to volunteers when the level of confrontation required to resolve something is more than they’re comfortable with on their own. They should be able to report small incidents or weird incidents or incidents they might be wrong about without feeling that doing so makes them responsible for ending someone’s conference experience.

The appropriate level of responsibility for that kind of decision belongs to conference organizers, and that’s where it will stay. The attendees’ job is to enjoy the conference.

I’m pleased with how the conference rewrite turned out. I invite you to check out Skeptech’s new policy, and if you’ll be in the area, register for the conference. It’s the weekend after next (April 4 – 6), and I think we can make it a good time for everyone.

Skeptech: Updating a Harassment Policy

4 thoughts on “Skeptech: Updating a Harassment Policy

  1. 1

    That’s a good policy; I see what appears to be influence from the Ada Initiative’s policy.

    I speak at a lot of conferences and have adopted a speaking policy similar to John Scalzi’s. It’s been heartening, because every single one of the conference organizers I’ve discussed it with has responded favorably. A lot of the organization and management work of conferences is done by women, in my industry, and that might have something to do with the reception.
    My letter I send conference organizers:

  2. 2

    Can I ask the question that I think some of the ardent free speech advocates are thinking?

    If a guy goes to the bar at such a conference and has three drinks, gets cheerful and loud and tells a dirty joke that’s only a 3 or maybe a 5 (out of 10) on the joke meanness scale, will he: be ignored, be shushed, be shushed loudly with pointing, be encouraged to go back to his room, be bounced out of the conference so hard that his teeth will rattle?

    Will any actual eggshells be trodden on?

    (This is what I think people stress about, deep down inside. Personally, at the last conference that I attended, I had a cheerful consensual conversation about self-published erotica and (separately) in the panels some of the panelists said “fuck that” a lot, to wild applause.)

  3. 3

    @2 …… I’d shush him the first time and tell him that sexist/racist/whatecver jokes aren’t welcome.

    If he stays and keeps up with the obnoxious jokes, then it’s time to send him to his room and get heavy.

  4. 4

    As usual, the copying of policies also copies error or, as here, omissions. As was common when these model policies started popping up a couple of years ago, age is not mentioned as one of the characteristics that might form the basis of harassment. I think that’s a significant omission.

    I notice that American Atheists updated their policy between 2012 and now after at least one nudge from a member of the public. (Not all such organisations did.) I also took the time to make an edit to the Geek Feminism wiki. Grateful if the Skeptech policy could be similarly amended, Stephanie. Thanks.

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