And I’d like to hear from them. Threat assessment isn’t a simple task for the layperson. Since Dr. Blackford decided he’s the world’s expert* and has deemed the communications Ophelia received to be “not threatening,” I got curious as to whether we’ve got folks who do threat assessment for a living. You see, I did quite a bit of (informal) study on forensic psychology when I was younger. And one thing I remember actual threat assessment experts** saying is that threats are context-dependent.
For instance, if someone says they’re going to shoot me in the head, make sure my brains splatter all over the sidewalk, and then pour gasoline over the remains and set fire to them, I might become upset – if, say, that was conveyed to a third party by someone who is obsessed with me. But that graphic explanation of what will happen to me would make me giggle if some friends and I were discussing the best method for handling me should I become a zombie. Context is key, people.
But context isn’t always so crystal-clear. We saw that with the communications Ophelia received. They can be read as either a) a veiled threat to harm, b) a paranoid fan trying to help Ophelia stay safe, c) a nasty mockery, or d) something we haven’t even considered. Yet the context surrounding them is over a year of threats, animosity, and hatred aimed at her and like-minded women. That vitriol had increased to a fever pitch just before she received those emails. I can tell you that in the context of what’s been going on in this community, if I had received those communications from a person unknown to me, and this came on top of doubts I’d already had about my safety and comfort in speaking at a conference, combined with reasonable doubt as to whether the president in charge of said conference would take concerns seriously, I’d not be inclined to read them in the most flattering light. I’d be pricing Kevlar, just in case.
And I wouldn’t be wrong to do so.
Not being an expert in threat assessment, I’d have to go with my own judgment and the advice of people I trust. If some of them advised me that things looked rather hinky, and this confirmed my own feelings on the matter, I’d quite probably decide that keeping my speaking engagement wasn’t worth the risk. And if I believed, at the time, that these were genuinely threatening communications, I’d mention this fact when announcing that I was breaking the engagement.
According to Dr. Blackford, this isn’t what I should do. I have news for Dr. Blackford: his opinion in this matter would be precisely as valuable to me as my cat’s shit. He has not said anything that would give me confidence in his insight into such matters. What he has said on other matters leads me to suspect he may be full of the substance that frequently emerges from the litter box regarding this one.
Dr. Blackford sez, “For what it’s worth, I am an expert (or at least, to be honest, a former expert, in that I have not been in legal practice for over a decade now) on the subject of sexual harassment law and workplace misconduct in general.” Fantastic! I’m dying to know more about this brief phase of his life. Perhaps he can inform us how many incidents of workplace harassment are required before he would advise a company to adopt a harassment policy. Perhaps he would tell us what might happen to, oh, say, a convention that doesn’t take measures to prevent harassment and then gets the shit sued out of it by an attendee who is harassed and/or harmed there. Could it be possible that a harassment policy would not only protect convention attendees, but the organization itself?
Perhaps Dr. Blackford would also be so kind as to opine on just how much evidence is required of a woman to prove she was, in fact, harassed. Because, you see, he sez, “I think we should suspend judgment as to whether there was ever an Elevator Guy or a conversation in a lift in Dublin – we need more evidence as to what, if anything, took place that night…. Always be sceptical when you see claims about someone behaving badly unless you see the events with your own eyes or there is plenty of corroboration and/or testing of the evidence (via cross-examination, for example).” It sounds to me like Dr. Blackford is saying that no woman, ever, should be believed without X number of witnesses. Oh, he tries to wriggle out of that by adding that menz can totes make shit up, too (I paraphrase), but the people he’s currently busy doubting are all women who were harassed. I find his demand for evidence beyond an unreasonable doubt fascinating, as he was the very man claiming that harassment policies which disallow booth babes are “Talibanesque.” You know what else is Talibanesque, Dr. Blackford? Hint: it has to do with the reliability of women as witnesses.
After seeing Dr. Blackford’s comments on the matter, I doubt I’ll be consulting him on harassment issues for any organization I may be responsible for. And I can’t foresee using him for threat assessment in the future, but who knows? Maybe he’s actually brilliant at it. Let’s give him a chance.
Scenario A: A Love Letter
I have received a letter whose author says that the grace of my body thrills him, that my beauty is his starting point for the appreciation of all other beauty, and that he wants to feel my body and share his love with me. Should I be worried?
Scenario B: A Few Worrisome Words
I have received a communication that indicates I will be skinned, peeled, mutilated, and bombed. Should I become concerned?
Most of you already know the answers. The context of this post hints at them. You might even be wise enough to ask for context within the scenarios, because you suspect I’m being tricksy. I shall provide without making you ask.
In Scenario A, I am a 10 year-old girl getting a letter from a middle-aged man***. In Scenario B, I am a writer who has challenged another writer to a writing competition.
Let’s make it harder.
In Scenario A, I am a young woman receiving this communication from a fan.
In Scenario B, I am a blogger receiving this communication from someone who vehemently disagrees with what I said in a recent post.
It gets harder, in those instances. Perhaps not for Dr. Blackford, who would likely tell me that I should be flattered by A and laugh off B, from what I’ve seen of his commentary. But for most of us, it would become more difficult to deny those two things are potential threats. And if we suspect they may be acted upon, if we suspect that the letter writer in Scenario A will come to “share his love” (aka, rape) and the writer in Scenario B is unhinged enough to actually harm us, we will take action to mitigate those threats.
When we receive communications which, given their context, may be reasonably construed as potentially threatening, we are facing Schroedinger’s Threat. We are also facing a gamble, and the stakes are high. The probability of this Schroedinger’s Threat being a genuine one that will be acted upon may be low. But it’s not zero. Any
psychiatric nurse Nurse Practitioner can tell you that a threat, whether baldly stated or merely hinted at, must be taken seriously.
And what we do when we assess the possibilities is a cost-benefit analysis in which we decide, for ourselves, whether to risk to our health and lives is worth the gamble. In some instances, we may decide it is. In some, we may decide it isn’t. We make the best choice we have with the information available to us.
In some instances, we may go so far as to hire a threat assessment professional. As Dr. Blackford and his fellow hyper-skeptics seem to lack a certain, shall we say, discernment in such matters, perhaps we should ask if anyone in the community does this sort of thing for a living?
* I have chosen Dr. Blackford as my example in this post. Alas, there are plenty of “totes not a threat!” people I could have used instead.
***This scenario was taken from Gavin de Becker’s excellent The Gift of Fear.
(Standard reminder for posts on sensitive subjects: First-time comments go automatically to moderation. Due to the vagaries of work and sleep, they may not be released immediately. Swearing and disagreement are fine, but keep it within bounds. Gendered epithets, misogyny, abuse of other commenters, and other misbehavior won’t be tolerated. You might wish to review the cantina’s comment policy before you comment. There are also ground rules for this discussion here.)