Here’s the first half hour of the transcript for the big FtB Conversation from yesterday, done once again by the indefatiguable Kate Donovan. She’s the poor soul who did the transcript for the “PenisGate Debate”, who volunteered for this as I guess a sort of palate-cleanser.
If you’re just joining in, read these two posts first:
Transcript below the fold. Part two as soon as she’s done.
PZ Myers: The latest controversy to embroil Freethought Blogs [hence, FtB, for my hands’ sake] is over the James Randi Education Foundation’s yearly meeting, the Amaz!ng Meeting, or TAM for short. After DJ Grothe, the president of the JREF, announced his concern that despite the fact that he’d done a fine job of making the roster of speakers well balanced, at roughly half and half men and women, the registration of women was significantly down from last year. So what do you do about that? Well, you know, he could have asked the big boosters of TAM, like Skepchick and FtB, to rally together and help get more women involved, as Skepchick has done every year. Instead, in a bizarre twist, he basically accused Rebecca Watson and a certain blog network, ours, of scaring women away with our horrible stories of harassment. He also denied that sexual harassment had ever occurred, a story that has been steadily unraveling over the last few weeks. Then, to make matters worse, a number of poorly informed people have been ranting that we, that is people like Rebecca Watson, Stephanie Zvan, want to harm TAM, another weird claim that the history of our involvement with skeptical and atheist meetings. So, the point of our session today is to clear the air, get our position expressed, and maybe vent a little frustration. So, what I’d like us to do here first is we’ll just go around our little group and have everyone introduce themselves. Then we’ll take turns and have each person take a few minutes to explain their position and their concerns. And then we’ll just turn it into a free-for-all discussion. And I’ll watch the clock. I think it’s probably fair to say we should end in about an hour, because if we go on longer than that, we’re getting annoying. Sound good?
PZ Myers: Okay, so let’s see. Well, I’ll just go over my little list here. I see you from left to right, so Al, you want to say a few words, introduce yourself?
Al Stefanelli: Yes, I’m Al Stefanelli, the Georgia State Director of American Atheists Incorporated. Got a couple of books and I’m a blogger on FtB, and I’ve been following the issue that we’re about to speak of rather closely and I will have some comments on it as we progress through our video.
PZ Myers: Okay, then Daniel!
Dan Fincke: Hi, I’m Dan Fincke from Camels with Hammers on FtB, and I think other people have more things to set the stage, so we can go from there.
PZ Myers: Okay, Greg
Greg Laden: My name is Greg Laden. I blog at FtB, and Scienceblogs. And yeah, I guess my perspective on this is I think that we’re seeing an extension of something that’s been going on for a long time, having to do with sexism and misogyny on the internet. It’s just being brought into a slightly different arena, regarding these conferences. I guess I’m the person who officially asked for DJ to resign, and I want to clarify just briefly that. That I don’t really care if he resigns or not. That’s the kind of thing you say to people when you want them to explain what they’re doing. And he hasn’t done that. And that’s kind of what I’m hoping will happen someday, but I’m increasingly thinking that it won’t.
PZ Myers: Okay. Ian.
Ian Cromwell: My name is Ian Cromwell. I’m the author of the blog The Crommunist Manifesto on FtB. My involvement with this issue has been somewhat less intense than others’. I guess I’m the dispassionate, objective third party.
Ian Cromwell: I heard there was a third party, and I was down for it.
PZ Myers: Okay, Jason.
Jason Thibeault: Jason Thibeault. I’m the blogger for Lousy Canuck. I am presently engaged in building a harassment timeline, a timeline of all of the major events in the campaign to try to get conventions to enact strong harassment policies. And I am most famous in this argument for having called DJ Grothe a douchebag.
PZ Myers: Okay, Ophelia.
Ophelia Benson: I’m Ophelia Benson. I blog at FtB. And I’m in an awkward position because I’m a speaker at TAM this year, and I could be one of the women that DJ had in mind when he talked about the women driving women away from TAM by talking about harassment. Or I could not be, and I don’t know. I have no way of knowing, and DJ hasn’t spelled it out, and it all feels rather tense, given that I have to go to TAM and give a speech, and people are getting increasingly hostile as this wears on. And they’re getting—some of them are getting personally hostile to me, which makes it all quite interesting.
PZ Myers: Kay. Rebecca.
Rebecca Watson: [of note: the tagline that appears under Rebecca is: Owner of a Banner Penis] I’m Rebecca Watson, of Skepchick.org. Feminist bitch.
PZ Myers: Nice and short. Stephanie.
Stephanie Zvan: I’m Stephanie Zvan. I blog at Almost Diamonds, and I kind of set off this round of talking about harassment as well. Jen did more than I did, but she’s not actually here. So, I’ll represent. She, at the Women in Secularism conference, made a statement about the fact that people had come up to her and warned her to stay away from particular speakers at various events, because they were known for things like groping, following people back to their hotel rooms, even problems of sexual assault. So I figured… well, I tweeted that, and the tweets just started coming. And I figured it was about time to get ahead of that. And so I wrote a blog post laying out the whole situation, and people kind of were getting uncomfortable, and so a couple of days later, I wrote another post, this one for conference organizers, where I said, you know, if you want to address these concerns, what you want to do is get out in front of the problem. Put in anti-harassment policies. Don’t just cover sexual harassment, cover race-based, and gender-identity and all that fun stuff while you’re at it. Just take care of it all at once. And a bunch of people started doing that. And I expected some pushback, cause these things never happen without pushback. And then about a week and a half later, I got pushback from some place I completely wasn’t expecting it.
PZ Myers: Okay. So that’s all of us so far. What we’ll now do is take turns, and who ever wants to speak first can just say what they think about this whole situation, what kind of problems they’re encountering. And Ian will stop pounding his keyboard and running around [Ian moved a lot during the introduction, which meant the video always cut to him].
Ian Cromwell: I don’t work for you!
PZ Myers: Okay, so who wants to go first?
Dan Fincke: Can I just say one initial thing about how this all started? And this is just sort of a meta issue, is that I think one of the biggest problems here was that DJ didn’t understand his role and where his power is to effect for good things in this movement. You know, he has an organization that he can actually do good things with–put women on the stage. And for him to kind of go to Facebook and get entangled and defending a dubious troll that he knew very little about, back in the fall, and then to vent these speculations that he hadn’t really considered or gotten data on about how much women in the movement talking about sexual harassment was actually the cause of anything. For him to kind of do that stuff in a public space, not really realizing his position, and the proper channels for working out those issues… I think that really gets to one of the key areas where there’s concern of a certain kind of incompetence there. That’s just one thing, even before we get into the substance of what he said, that I think exacerbates all these issues. He had to kind of understand what his role was. And I think that’s where a lot of his blame begins. I just wanted to throw that out there.
Rebecca Watson: For those of us at Skepchick, it was really astonishing because only a few weeks prior, Amy—Surly Amy—and I had been speaking with DJ about setting up our tables at TAM and how that was all going to go down, and also working out the details of the fundraiser that Amy was going to do—which she did last year as well—that raises money to send women to TAM. And the deal we made with DJ was specifically that Amy would run the fundraiser again. She would aim for sending even more women this year than she did last year. We would give her any space she wanted on Skepchick to promote it. I would promote TAM in general as well, on Skepchick and Twitter and Facebook, the whole deal. And we were also planning to have events at our tables. We were going to get two tables together, we would do fun things for people to just sort of drive excitement, the way we have for six years or so. Seven years? So it was really bizarre of him to not have brought his concerns to us, when we had been discussing all of this. That to me, is the perfect time to say, ‘hey, another thing I was thinking is… .maybe… [laughter]… stop talking about getting harassed?”. I don’t know. [laughter]. But yeah, he didn’t do that. He took it to Facebook instead. And you know, he actually… that was almost a copy/paste. I saw him give that same spiel to several different people on social networks and things. So you know, I don’t know. It was pretty baffling for us.
Stephanie Zvan: And one of the other things that made it particularly baffling is not only were we not pointing out that TAM was any kind of problem as far as sexual harassment went–we were talking about a policy problem in general. But TAM wasn’t even on my radar for conferences and anti-harassment policies, cause they put one in place last year, after Rebecca had been threatened. So…
Rebecca Watson: Yeah. And I’ll back that up by saying TAM is the one event I always hold up as a shining example that this is how to get more women to your conference. And a video of me in Germany just went up, and I think during the Q&A during that , I mention TAM as… Someone had asked, how do we get more women out, and I say “Look at what TAM did.” We hassled them to get more women up on stage, and sure enough, we got more women in the audience. So yeah, up until this point, I had always considered TAM to be a good example of what to do right. And I’d never ever criticized TAM for being an unfriendly place for women.
Ophelia Benson: Well, that’s something I had been wondering about all along, and now that I have you gathered all together, I can just ask. Do you know if anybody was actually specifically talking about TAM itself, in any of these discussions? You know, in the period after the Women in Secularism conference?
Jason Thibeault: I can tell you definitively that TAM entered the conversation when Kimbo Jones of Skeptic North asked JREF, on Twitter, what their current harassment policy was. And they said, “here is our harassment policy from last year”, and pointed to the blog post from last year, where they had published that harassment policy. She asked where it was published and what their current one was, and never got an answer. That was on May 22nd, two days after the initial ‘storm’ happened. And I only know all this off the top of my head because I’ve been working on this timeline for so long.
Ophelia Benson: And as far as you know, is that all there was? I mean, were any of the notorious FTblogger women talking about it? Or was… I mean, Rebecca’s already said she wasn’t. I wasn’t.
Jason Thibeault: No. No.
Stephanie Zvan: I don’t think there’s any conference that probably didn’t go ‘eee’ [imitates a wince] just a little bit, because we were talking about prominent speakers. And frankly, the big names speak a lot of places. But you know, nobody was getting specific about who. And we’re very much clear we didn’t want to get specific about who because we wanted an institutional solution, instead of trying to target specific people.
Jason Thibeault: I think the problem comes from when DJ made his comments on the 26th, on Facebook. He explicitly mentioned TAM, in reference to the fact that female attendance has dropped off for this year. And… I think that was the catalyst for turning this entire conversation from harassment policies in general to all about TAM and what DJ is doing by effectively putting the blame on those uppity feminists who are talking about their harassment experiences.
Ophelia Benson: Well, DJ has said somewhere, somewhere in all that he did say that we, the women who are doing all this, were talking about TAM, didn’t he? Or didn’t he?
Jason Thibeault: Uh, I think he blamed women for the irresponsible messaging that has resulted in people thinking that TAM is a [makes air quotes] “not-safe space”. As opposed to [air quotes again] “not a safe space”. I have to make that distinction.
Rebecca Watson: Well, when I specifically asked him for examples, he came back with a quote from me, in USA Today, I think, in which I address the freethought community. And the thing is, I never bothered to correct him. Because I do think TAM is a part of the freethought community, and I think my criticisms of the freethought community would be good for every conference to take into mind, you know. But yeah, he wasn’t—none of his examples specifically called out TAM, I don’t think. I could be wrong about that, but not that I recall.
Ophelia Benson: That’s what I thought. I think what’s happening now I guess, is that observers are translating into all of us saying, specifically naming TAM and saying it’s terrible, and having been doing this before DJ said anything. And that just appears to be not even close to the truth.
[little bit of crosstalk, apologies made, SZ speaks]
Stephanie Zvan: Ashley made a really good point… yesterday? Day before? That, what happened, when DJ started talking, he made a bunch of claims about TAM. And people started reacting to those claims, and examining those claims, cause, you know, we’re skeptics. And so, that’s not been great for those claims.
Ophelia Benson: That’s true. So, it’s actually DJ who triggered all these harsh things people are saying about TAM, by bringing it up in this particular way.
Jason Thibeault: Probably by expressly saying that he had encountered absolutely zero reports of harassment. And that obviously… I mean, it’s not something that you can mis-parse. You find one example of a report of harassment, and that scuttles his entire claim. And we’ve found several reports of harassment that were not only reported to DJ and TAM’s staff, but were thereafter, reported online. Like Ashley’s, for instance. Or like Buzzo, and the potentially upskirt photography.
Greg Laden: Well, that’s the part that has changed my opinion, from asking DJ to consider resigning to, you know, sort of requiring that he do that. You can’t have that much knowledge, which we document he must have had, and deny it, in this very Orwellian fashion, without there being a plan, okay. And he’s not an idiot. He’s got a purpose, he’s got a job, he’s doing his job in some way. And I don’t think we’ve identified the motivation for him insisting that everyone shut up about harassment at TAM. It almost looks like harassment at TAM was part of the show, and it had to be something that continues, because it’s what the founders want to happen—people who run TAM are asking for this to keep going. They’re not asking for a revision, they’re asking for it to be swept under the rugs. And he’s doing that. That’s what it looks like. And I hate to… that’s a pretty serious accusation—
Dan Fincke: Yeah.
Greg Laden. But, but, how do you explain this extremely systematic Orwellian denial of mounting evidence, all of which he had in his hands beforehand, and any of which he could have known—because other people were involved—would become widely available. This requires an explanation, and—
Ophelia Benson: The trouble with that is—
Greg Laden: There could be other explanations, but in the absence of one, I’m speculating that it’s because it’s intentional.
Ophelia Benson: The problem with that is though, that it’s backfiring so grotesquely, that you know, you say he’s not stupid, and I agree, he’s not stupid. But if he’d actually planned it, he would have thought a step ahead and thought ‘oh wait, that’s going to piss everybody off’ and the whole this is going to blow up and it’ll backfire.’ So, it’s hard to believe it’s a plan, because it’s elementary skepticism to think a step or two ahead and realize no, wait a minute, that won’t work. That’ll just piss everybody off, and it just won’t work.
Ian Cromwell: And it’s never—it’s usually a good idea to never attribute to malice what can be more explained by stupidity.
Greg Laden: that was my initial position. Still seeing evidence to the contrary.
Ian Cromwell: If you look at DJ’s record before this latest thing, there’s nothing to suggest he was looking for, or trying to encourage sexual harassment. In fact, my understanding is that it was quite the opposite. That he was trying his damndest to make TAM a more inclusive, diverse environment. His reaction is bad. But it is not uniquely bad. It is not atypically bad. This is what happens when you think there isn’t a problem, and people point out to you, hey look, you’ve got a bunch of problems. The first thing that anyone does is say you’re making it up, you’re exaggerating, it’s not a problem, you’re crazy. That’s a completely normal human stupidity thing to do.
Al Stefanelli: Ian, that might be normal, and I completely and totally agree with you. But we’re supposed to be men and women—people—of reason. And it doesn’t do well when one of us makes a statement, and we’ve all, at one time or another in our careers, made statements, printed things, said things, that turned out to be inaccurate, and when we were called on it, we retracted it. We came, on our blogs and our videos and our [couldn’t make it out], and said, you know, I said this, I wrote this, I was wrong, let’s move on.
Jason Thibeault: I’ve had to walk back things I’ve said that I didn’t intend the way they were said. And I’ve had to walk them back and correct them.
Al Stefanelli: Now, when you’ve got an individual who has as much influence as DJ does, when you get an individual like that, who was presented with evidence, it reminds me a lot of another demographic of our species who does the same thing, pretty much burying your head in the sand and saying ‘if I don’t say anything about it or if I ignore it, it will go away”. Problem is, we’re all skeptics. And it does not go away.
Dan Fincke: But, how many instances are we talking about here? Are we—we are talking about the guy who was harassing all the women, that Ashley Miller complained about. And in that case, I think it was established that all DJ knew was that he wasn’t supposed to be there and that he was being aggressive, but even Ashley had said that she hadn’t specifically reported the sexual harassment part. So is there any kind of way to Grothe had a… that there was a gap in understanding that that was a sexual issue? And then the other thing with this camera, with the guy with the mike, and you know the… apparently he was taking upskirt photos, what do we know about exactly what Grothe has said about that? And acknowledged about what was ever confirmed, about what that camera was for—do we know exactly—are there other instances on top of these two? Because both of those, we can attribute more to miscommunication, I think, than malice.
Rebecca Watson: Doctor Buzzo is the guy with the camera. And he has been sexually harassing women at TAM for, I mean, as long as I can remember going to TAM. I mean, TAM 6, maybe.
Jason Thibeault: There were threads from TAM 7 where people were talking—
Rebecca Watson: Yeah. I mean, he has long been one of the absolute worst people at TAM. Um, and he—it got to the point where at first it was a joke, and then it’s like, you know, please never leave me alone with this person. I mean, he is scary, [Al says something very muffled] because of his behaviors. And that was what was reported to DJ… was, this was a person who has already been harassing us women. He’s already—we’ve told him to please go away, and he has ignored us. He is following us, and now we see him with a camera on the end of a stick. Can you please do something about it?
Stephanie Zvan: And that was a written report.
Rebecca Watson: Yeah, there were verbal and written reports made. And at the time, the women thought that it was taken care of. But then, Buzzo apparently continued to follow them around. And nothing was ever followed up on JREF’s—well, I should say—one of the people involved said that they never heard back from JREF. And I believe the other one hounded JREF until she got a response.
Al Stefanelli: Correct me if I’m wrong, Rebecca, but after DJ had said that there was no issue, or no problem, or however he stated it, didn’t he receive ample evidence or proof or accounts afterwards? That’s the point I’m was making, is that to deny that there was ever anything going on, after receiving reports… I don’t believe that there was any malice. I just think it’s poorly executed attempt to put a positive spin on something.
Rebecca Watson: Yeah, DJ reported that there were—
Al Stefanelli: –acknowledge and apologize—
Stephanie Zvan: Well, he received the second report at TAM last year.
Al Stefanelli: So he knew about it prior to the fact, then, right, Stephanie?
Stephanie Zvan: Before he made these statements. He received the report last year at TAM.
Rebecca Watson: Yeah.
PZ Myers: It’s always the cover-up that gets you, isn’t it? That’s what’s happening here. You know, I don’t think any of us think that TAM is particularly awful, as far as sexual harassment. And as Rebecca mentioned, it’s always been the model convention for a lot of us as for how to handle diversity. And the problem is that here we’ve got a few incidents. They’re reported, and they’re swept under the rug and ignored, and that’s what’s bother people. Why can’t you just face up to the fact that yes, there has been a small amount of sexual harassment going on at TAM, you haven’t been very effective at treating it; we’d like to see you be better about it. That’s what we’re saying. That’s what we want. And DJ seems to be running away from this. That’s the annoying thing about it.
Rebecca Watson: Every, every conference has problems. Not just in the skeptic or atheist communities—every conference everywhere has problems. So when you tell us that there’s never any problem at this conference, first of all, that’s highly dubious. And then all these reports come in and show that it’s flat out wrong. However, there are other conferences that say yeah, things happen. Here is what we do to take care of them. Here is what’s happened in the past. Here’s how we do our best to keep you safe. That is what’s going to make people feel safe, and come out to your conferences.
Al Stefanelli: And it won’t throw up any red flags. Whenever someone says “never”, it always throws up a red flags, particularly in the skeptical community. Don’t tell us something never happens. Because somebody is going to find a report of something that happens, and they’re going to call you on it. It’s like when they find that misused comma in your blog.
Jason Thibeault: And I think there’s a lot of misinformation going on in this entire fight, from the very get-go. Look at—first of all, DJ has been conflating TAM with the entirety, the totality, of the skeptic/atheist communities. It’s kind of ridiculous. And then come the trolls, who say that Rebecca and Stephanie are trying to ruin TAM. And there comes the troll who says Ophelia thinks TAM is like Nazi Germany. And there are so many instances where—
Ian Cromwell: Wait. Those aren’t true? [deadpan]
Ian Cromwell: I don’t know… I heard from a preeeeetty reliable source.
Rebecca Watson: Surely those trolls can’t think I’m trying to ruin TAM. I backed out of TAM, so I’m sure they think TAM is way better now, sooo
Jason Thibeault: Oh, but you’re trying to send women to TAM so that you can have them harassed, and then you can talk about it, and then take over the movement. That’s what I heard.
Rebecca Watson: Really? Like it’s entrapment? Oh, God.
Al Stefanelli: If you’re going to do that, you have to rub your hands together like a nefarious villain.
[more laughs. Ian and Jason recommend buying a fake mustache at the same time. Jason illustrates with his mustache. More laughing happens]
PZ Myers: So that’s it. When DJ said only 18% of the attendees were women, he wasn’t saying we need more women, he was saying we need to get rid of these women somehow.
Rebecca Watson: Now it’s going to look really bad when it comes out that the uniform all of our grant attendees have to wear is just like a string bikini, and you know…
Ian Cromwell: Can I get one of those?
Jason Thibeault: …uniform of the Galiban?
Al Stefanelli: I find it quite ironic that the people who are accusing The Powers That Be of trying to ruin TAM, are actually trying to make it better. Theyre trying to make it a better event. That’s disheartening to me. When people are trying to make a venue, you know, more attractive to everybody, to be accused of trying to make it worse. It’s mind-boggling.
Rebecca Watson: Well, that’s why I pulled out. Because, you know, there’s so many other conferences happening. I’ve devoted so many years to trying to make TAM a better, safer, more welcoming place, and they just, they sent me a really loud and clear signal that they don’t appreciate that, and they don’t want me there anymore. So fine. You know what TAM, despite what DJ is doing, TAM is not the entirety of the freethought movement, luckily. There are plenty of other conferences that I can devote my time and energy to. So…
Jason Thibeault: I absolutely love the idea that people are saying you’re trying to ruin the movement, that you’re trying to ruin TAM by enacting a harassment policy… doesn’t that pretty much de facto mean that you want harassment at TAM as a fundamental part of the experience?
Ian Cromwell: Here’s my take on this, because I think what we’re running into is a reflection of a lot of resentment that exists in a fairly significant subset of the community that feels that issues of social justice, issues of gender equality, issues of sexual equality, issues of racial equality, that those don’t count. Those aren’t part of the ‘real movement’. And every time anyone begins to agitate about one of those things, there’s pushback that has nothing to do with what’s being said, that has nothing to do with what’s been done, that’s just people saying ‘this isn’t what we’re about. This doesn’t belong. This is not a conversation we’re interested in having.”
Jason Thibeault: PZ’s going to get letters to have you shut up now.
Jason Thibeault: I’m just saying…
Ian Cromwell: That’s sad.
PZ Myers: So what we have to do is find evidence of gender bias in bigfoot populations and UFO crews.
Ophelia Benson: It is always a guy Bigfoot!
Ian Cromwell: It’s always a guy in a suit! It’s never a lady in a suit! It’s never a trans person in a suit!
Al Stefanelli: I’m sure there will be ample selections at the local Star Trek convention.