As some of you may know, videoblogger thunderf00t has recently joined the Freethought Blogs network — and has weighed in on the conversation about sexual harassment at conferences. Saying, essentially and among many other things, that:
*THIS REALLY ISN’T A BIG PROBLEM*
Put simply, YES talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.
There is so much wrong packed into this one post, I could write an entire novel-length systematically dismantling everything that’s wrong with it. But I don’t have time or energy for that today… and I can’t imagine anyone having it in them to read it anyway. So I’m going to look at one piece of this wrong at a time, until I get bored or otherwise sick of it.
Today’s piece of wrong:
Now first let me say from a strategically point of view sexual harassment at conferences really is a non-issue (and if reading that has just pushed some buttons, I want you to calmly unplug those emotions and put them in a box, then take a deep breath, relax and read the rest of this reasoned argument)… breathing calmly yet? good!, then we can continue….
…… indeed to a large degree the conference scene is mostly redundant. A large conference is a couple of thousand people. In terms of viewership, a mediocre channel such as mine would pull in several tens of thousands of views for a video. Then of course many of these lectures are repeated from conference to conference, and virtually all of them are available online. Put simply if your primary focus is on the conference scene, then in the internet age, it’s probably misplaced.
Where is the wrong? Well, for starters: Nobody is saying that sexual harassment at conferences is the single most serious problem facing the atheist and skeptical communities. Nobody is even saying that conferences are the single most important gathering place, virtual or physical, for the atheist and skeptical communities. Contrary to what thunderf00t seems to think, it is not our primary focus.
It just happens to be what we’re talking about right now.
The conversation about sexism and misogyny in the atheist/ skeptical communities, and making these communities safer and more welcoming for women? It has been happening for a long time now, and has covered many different arenas, from conferences to local groups to internet communities. This latest conversation is only one part of it. To say, “Well, who cares about conferences anyway” is like hearing a concern expressed about crime rates in Detroit, and saying, “Well, who cares about Detroit? It’s just one city, the population is only about 700,000, and the population of the whole earth is almost seven billion!” Yes, the population of Detroit is about one thousandth of the Earth’s. We can still care about it. And even if the population of atheist/ skeptical conferences were about one thousandth of the population of the whole atheist/ skeptical community, we can still care about it. (I have no idea what those numbers might be, by the way — but a thousandth seems like it might be in the ballpark.)
What’s more, we can see the problems of Detroit as reflecting larger problems in the country and the world. Think globally, act locally, and all that. There are real, ongoing problems of sexism and misogyny in the atheist/ skeptical communities as a whole — and they are not going to be solved overnight with one dramatic gesture. They are going to be solved, or mitigated, one arena at a time.
Now, as it happens, I do think conferences are rather more important than thunderf00t seems to. True, an individual conference is a couple thousand people tops (in fact, that’s probably an over-estimate). But there are LOTS of conferences: large and small, local and regional and national and international. When you add up all the people who go to all these conferences, it’s quite a bit more than a couple thousand. And important things happen at these conferences. Leaders of local groups and student groups go, and bring back ideas they share with their groups. Leaders of organizations get ideas about what the local and student groups are concerned and/or excited about. Reporters go to conferences, and often write news stories that get atheism/ skepticism wider exposure outside the community. People do professional networking in person who might not have met online. People make friendships in person they might not have made if they’d only met online. People get inspired by hearing talks in person that wouldn’t have had the same impact on video. People find out about organizations, speakers, writers, books, videos, blogs they might not have. In-person interactions have a different quality that interactions on the internet. Some people are more comfortable interacting in person than they are interacting online. Conferences are energizing, and that energy carries out into the community at large. And obviously, things happen at conferences that get talked about on the Internet.
And if women don’t feel safe or welcome at conferences, and don’t participate in conferences as much as men do as a result, then that reduces our participation in the community as a whole.
But while that’s important, that’s something of a side point. The main point: This idea that, because some of us are talking about conferences now, it must be our primary concern — as opposed to one particular place where a larger and longer conversation happens to be focusing on right now? It’s a total straw man.
Oh… and if you think we shouldn’t be focusing so much attention on it? Why are you focusing attention on it? If you think we’re paying too much attention to what happens at conferences, throwing gasoline on the flame war is not the way to go.