After the Shermer Article: What Do You Decide?

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?

After the Shermer Article: What Do You Decide?

26 thoughts on “After the Shermer Article: What Do You Decide?

  1. 1

    You have banned me from commenting here, and that’s fine. But I wanted to say thanks. I think you’ve made as clear a case as ever could be made on this issue, now and with the other things you’ve posted. This was a slam dunk. I disagree with you about shit-flinging at people like Rush Limbaugh, but I think you are right about this, and always have been. It was brave and well said and couldn’t have been easy for you. Thank you.

  2. 2

    That was a great Buzzfeed article, and I’m glad that the accusations against Shermer are now so established and open that they can be publicly discussed without Shermer threatening to sue everyone into silence. I’m not optimistic that he’ll get barred from atheist conventions over it – TJ Grothe is buddies with him – but it might put everyone on their guard and keep him from other stuff.

    The part with Randi was telling. It sounds like he knew that Shermer was up to bad stuff for a long time and using the “I was drunk” excuse (which we know from research is usually bullshit), but bought his excuses for sexist reasons (“I guess men just behave badly towards women when drunk”).

  3. 3

    Make a decision now? Surely what’s needed is more dialogue. Yes, a rational, civil-toned dialogue between those who pursue nonconsensual sexual activities and those who are maneuvered into nonconsenual sexual activities is precisely what we need to wisely and unemotionally deduce that both parties equally are to blame. Perhaps a distinguished gentleman is available to moderate?

  4. 4

    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.

    Quoted for truth. Well, I could the same for damn near all of it, but this part really stuck out. The skeptic and atheist community’s tendency to stay quiet or dismiss these concerns helped get us into this mess, which is rather shocking for a group that claims to fearlessly follow the truth. I hope Oppenheimer’s article is taken as a call to action, to rid ourselves of the hyperskepticism which seems to be commonly invoked around social issues.

  5. 5

    One addition:

    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 on top of a fourth named person, though he’s not well known in skeptic/atheist circles from what I understand.

  6. 6

    Thank you for speaking out publicly (again). I am disgusted by Shermer’s behaviour, but I’m just as angry about everyone else who ignores it or supports him. I just hope that this article is a sign that outsiders can see the problems more easily than some who are inside it.

  7. 8

    Monster Talk
    Skeptic Blogs (or the new skeptic blogs which are coming soon) contributors and Skeptic magazine contributors
    finally take a stand? Especially if they consider themselves friends of some (if not all) of those mentioned in the article, like Dr Gay and Alison Smithn?

  8. 9

    gmcard: which “both parties are to blame”? Are you saying both Shermer and those who support/hire him despite all the info on his behavior? Or is this just another lousy way of blaming his victims, claiming surely they “did something” to encourage his unwanted behaviors? Really, you weren’t actually gong there, were you?

    Were you?

  9. 10

    I knew Shermer’s name back when he was a cyclist, and I used to subscribe to the skeptic magazine that he was involved with. But he really never was a big deal to me. And no matter how big a deal he was, he is not more important than half the population and all of the atheosceptic movement. Especially since the movement is not about following leaders or authorities. So, guilty or innocent, he can be done without.

    I think that he is guilty, by the way. I have seen too many creepy guys to buy the defense that nobody would do that. Yes, some women may exaggerated (just like guys do), but far many more keep silent. The truth is probably close to him being extremely creepy, and using his public image and the events to get skeevy sex.

    We can’t really have a trial, with all the facts, but we can just let him go. And if, by chance, the result is an innocent person lying in the tatters of a reputation, alone and abandoned, well, welcome to women’s world.

  10. 12

    Couple things:

    In the most disappointing section of the article, Randi acknowledged receiving multiple complaints about Shermer. It looks like he just went the Borat route and said, “Naughty, naughty, Micheal, if you do this [an unspecified number] more times, I might have to ban you from TAM…”

    That does imply some number of serious complaints beyond the three mentioned in the Buzzfeed piece.

    Also, that conspiracy theory email from Shermer blaming two dudes for framing him was … troubling. The defense he presents for his actions — someone framed me, or, better, surely I couldn’t have done these things because they’re so gross and offensive that no sane person could ever do something like that — were pitiful.

  11. 16

    “Surely what’s needed is more dialogue.” – gmcard

    Actually from a human resources perspective, what was needed three complaints ago was a suspension pending an investigation followed by termination and ineligibility for re-hire or re-attendance. We all know that the internet, a conference, or the workplace aren’t courts of law, so “beyond a reasonable doubt” does not apply. But if I were the person responsible for both the safety of attendees or co-workers and compliance with state and federal anti-harassment statues, my belief is that a reasonable person should conclude that Shermer is a serial harasser and would not be employed or invited in a manner that would provide opportunities to continue his pattern of harassment. It is really not that difficult. Call it a “convergence of evidence”, if you will.

  12. 17

    It’s so painful when you find that your hero (I was going to say…has feet of clay, but really it’s more like) looks at the half of humankind that I belong to as prey pool. Not only one hero, but several who have basic disregard for that fact, which equals disregard, or at least a massive blind spot for the humanity of us all. This reckoning was very hard for me, as I grew up with parents who devalued me because of my gender, and I internalized that as well. When I gave up religion (a long and harrowing process), I was delighted to find a movement that respected everyone. Or so I thought. The recognition of the mistreatment of my sisters in freethought, and myself (on a minute scale, comparatively) has been a bit like getting served chocolate ice cream with a turd buried in it, over and over.
    I have long thought that many people live their lives not really realizing or caring that other people are real, with individual lives, desires, and pain. It sucks that some of these people are in our midst, but I’m happy that the spotlight is on them now!

  13. 20

    @2 brett says.

    Perhaps you haven’t heard. Grothe is no longer with JREF. A sort of immediate parting of the ways. Pursuing other opportunities, you know. Or time with the family. Or a permanent sabbatical. Or whatever face-saving bullshit came out of their mouths. Point is, he’s gone. Bu-bye.

    Perhaps that was a pre-emptive strike, knowing that this shit was about to hit this particular fan. Dunno; pure speculation.

  14. 21

    That’s an interesting thought. Perhaps D.J. was jettisoned partly to provide a convenient scapegoat once the fan had thoroughly splattered dookie everywhere.*

    *Not trying to minimize the harm Grothe has done, but clearly the rot goes much deeper in the JREF.

  15. 22

    All I have to say is that I’m glad this is finally out in the open. I was much more active in the skeptic community until a few years ago when I suffered extreme burnout. I still follow things, but from the fringe. It was driving me nuts that people were hinting around about a sexual harassment/abuse situation without naming names or getting specific. Although this isn’t good news, it’s great to finally know what’s been going on and to get a public dialog going about it.

    If Michael Shermer is guilty of what’s he’s been accused of — and it sure seems possible with so many accusers involved — he should suffer the consequences with a direct hit to his career. We do not need someone like him speaking out for our cause. We need good and honest people with strong morals.

    Isn’t it bad enough that so many people hate us for our lack of belief in God? Doesn’t having a man like Shermer speak for us make us look as immoral and unethical as the believers think we are?

  16. 24

    “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

    The news story also contains confirmation from another well-known person in skeptic and atheist circles, namely, James Randi, who had evidently received more than one complaint he deemed credible enough to warn Shermer that more complaints might result in sanctions.

  17. 25

    […] Update, September 2014: I avoided mentioning Michael Shermer’s name when I first wrote this blog, because he was then seriously threatening to sue everyone who named him, but when this is being discussed on Buzzfeed, I think it can be acknowledged to be in the public domain. See also Stephanie Zvan’s blogpost After the Shermer Article: What Do You Decide?. […]

  18. 26

    Thomas MacAulay Millar’s summary of the studies and statistics on rapists has probably been linked before. However, I’d like to point out that Shermer’s apparent M.O., namely use of alcohol to knock out victims, and use of alcohol as excuse to avoid prosecution/shunning/etc., fits *the standard serial rapist profile*.

    This is absolutely the typical behavior of rapists. Shermer’s “oh, nobody would behave that badly” claim is very blatantly false.

    Further implication from the statistics: it is very likely that Shermer has been doing this (raping people using alcohol) since his teens. It might be worth digging back into his history further and seeing if yet more cases show up.

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