An article has just been published on Buzzfeed about sexism in atheism and skepticism, the allegations against Michael Shermer, and the protection he’s received from some portions of the movement.
It isn’t as though this information is particularly new. Some of us have been talking about this problem for years. We’ve had details on Shermer’s behavior for more than a year at this point, and we’ve seen the responses to that as he has continued to make appearances at conferences and been added to secular think tanks.
This situation is new in some respects, however. These allegations have not just appeared in a blog. They’ve been public for more than a year in some cases, and with a New York Times columnist prepared to listen and take their claims seriously, these women have used their names. The journalist in question, Mark Oppenheimer, has a history of uncovering abuse in other communities, prompting reform.
That makes this yet one more important decision point for people in these movements. There have been several of those so far in these matters–reactions to Dear Muslima and the harassment that followed, reactions to the idea that there were grapevines on which warnings about sexism and harassment were shared among women who worked at our conferences, reactions to the idea that some behavior should be off limits at our events and that people should have recourse when those boundaries were crossed, reactions to each individual charge of sexual harassment up to and including rape.
Let’s just say that not all the choices made at that point were exemplary. If they had been, those choices and the disagreements over them wouldn’t be the focus of a news article. So in the interest of encouraging people to think about their reactions to this development before plastering them all over social media, I present the following considerations.
If you’re one of the people who has been supporting Michael Shermer against “rage bloggers” and “anonymous accusations”, it’s time to think about the following.
This is not one accusation. It is not even two accusations. This news story contains accounts of three women, named and well-known in skeptic and atheist circles, who say that Michael Shermer engaged in sexual behavior aimed at them without their consent. How many incidents of that sort are you willing to put your reputation behind? That’s what you do when you continue to employ Shermer, entwine your name and reputation with his. If now is not the point when you feel having that name and behavior associated with yours is bad for you, when does that happen?
If you’re one of the people or work for one of the organizations that has continued to employ Shermer, are you willing to be a party to future incidents like those reported? His name will continue to sell tickets. He will continue to bring donations for your organization, because enough people don’t care or still won’t have heard about this, so you have to make this decision for yourself. If now is not the point when you put your foot down and say you won’t put your staff or attendees at risk of being the next story, how many more people have to come forward?
If you’re a member or volunteer for one of these organizations or attendee at these events, are you ready to ask those leaders for change? These events are put on for you. These organizations are supposed to be doing work you think is important. At best, the behavior described is a distraction from that work. At worst, continuing to support people with “bad boy” reputations puts you and others with whom you work and socialize at risk. If this much attested history isn’t enough for you to identify this behavior as something you don’t want leaders to expose you to, what would be?
Are you ready to stop impugning the reputations of the people who have reported Shermer’s nonconsensual behavior? This means both the women who have told their stories and the people who have amplified them. If having a reporter who has covered abuse allegations previously take these people seriously is not enough for you to grant that these are at least plausible stories that should be treated seriously, what will it take to convince you to do likewise?
Are you ready to stop trying to convince people to shut up about problems like these within these movements? Whether you do it by shouting people down, threatening them and their reputations, or by more genteel, “friendly” pressure, the result you’re looking for is still the kind of accommodation of abuse that has historically created the largest scandals. We already have mainstream press reporting on accommodation of sexual harassment in our movements. If that isn’t enough to push you to say this should be dealt with more openly, what will be?
Are you ready to start listening when people tell you sexual harassment is a problem in our movements? The funny thing about this question is that much of the structural work to address the problem is done. Most organizations and events put the framework in place more than a year ago. While there are some that need to catch up, most of what is needed now is a cultural shift. We need people to say that the behavior reported by the women in this article is not acceptable, and to keep saying it rather than fall silent when they hear about a specific incident. If you’re not ready to say that after these stories, when will you be?
For many people, the answer to each of these questions has been “Not yet” every time a new story about Michael Shermer has surfaced. If I had to guess, people have been hoping the problem would go away. That isn’t going to happen. This story demonstrates that.
It’s time to accept that and face these questions with that understanding in mind. People are looking at you if you have any visibility at all as an atheist or skeptic. You don’t necessarily have to shout your answers if you’re a quiet person, but you will have to decide. People watching want to know your answers, and they want to know what it takes to get you to put your foot down. If not now, when?