Skepticon, and Getting It Right When Things Go Wrong

I push pretty hard for organizations to do things better. I suggest changes. I criticize what I think are obvious mistakes. I even helped run a conference this summer aimed at making people better activists.

Occasionally, people look at that and think I’m demanding perfection. I’m not. If I were, I’d be in trouble, because I personally have never run an event where something didn’t go wrong. I don’t know any other organizer who has either. Perfection isn’t nigh unto impossible and even harder when you’re being ambitious.

I actually advocate for two things. First of all, I want people to make new mistakes instead of old ones. I want us to share information with each other about our challenges and solutions. I want us to listen to people who tell us we’ve failed them and either do better or be up front about the needs we can’t meet. I want us to get good enough at what we do that we can spend energy on trying new things instead of scrambling when something predictable goes wrong.

I also want us to get better at dealing with mistakes. I want to stop seeing people vilified for pointing them out. I want to see us keep taking responsibility like adults even when things go badly. I want us to learn instead of asking our friends to comfort us and tell us we did nothing wrong.

None of this is impossible, but it is often hard and uncomfortable. In light of that, I’d like to talk about a few things that went wrong with Skepticon this year and give the organizers some kudos for how they handled it they figured out they’d screwed something up.

It started before Skepticon, and it started well. In fact, it started with something I really love seeing from organizations. About three weeks before the conference, Skepticon posted about changes it was adopting to make Skepticon more accessible to more people. They’d already been heading that way with ASL interpretation and captioning, but they added more. (Full disclosure: I indirectly had a hand in this, since the ideas came out of Secular Women Work, but my part was really just identifying people who know their stuff on accessibility and inviting them to give a workshop.)

Then, about two weeks later, Skepticon posted another change to their plans. Having been notified that a red/green system for indicating communication preferences wouldn’t work for people with the most common form of color blindness, they were changing the system to blue/green. Though it isn’t mentioned in the post, they also changed their lanyard system for indicating photography preferences to red/black.

I know that seems small, so why do I mention it? I include it here because I saw where the criticism came from. I was looking at the hashtag a few days before the conference to see who was talking about attending. I scrolled back far enough to run into a bunch of nonsense about the communication policy, most of it amounting to the idea that anyone who would benefit by it shouldn’t be someone attending atheist and skeptic conferences.

In the middle of all that was an inveterate hashtag troll/slimepitter claiming to be red/green colorblind and left out by the policy. There was no chance this person was attending Skepticon. There was no chance this person was tweeting in anything but bad faith. Nonetheless, Skepticon took the criticism to heart and changed their policies, adding supplies at the last minute to do so.

That’s a hard thing to do. It’s difficult enough to face up to having messed up, particularly when you’ve just done something good. It’s that much harder when you know the criticism is only meant as an attack and when it’s only coming from people who want to see you destroyed. Still, Skepticon took the one piece of reasonable critique from among the trash and fixed the problem.

Before it was overshadowed by the “Q&A” an hour later, the problem at Skepticon everyone was talking about was the “question” from the guy in the Tap Out shirt during Fallon Fox’s interview. It was rambling and incoherent, making it harder to reconstruct, but it went something like this:

As an ex-bodybuilder, I’m an expert in biology and genetics. I’m a fan of MMA, and, uh, I really respect you, but, well, uh, some women fighters think you have an unfair advantage because…bone structure, uh…[gestures at his own crotch]…your manhood–

Lauren Lane, who was interviewing Fox, cut him off there and told him he was done. He tried to argue about it, and she told him about half a dozen ways to sit down, including calling for an escort out. Eventually, he left the microphone, though I missed whether he was escorted away from it. He yelled out something from the audience shortly thereafter, so I know he wasn’t removed from the room. A couple of older men in the audience yelled that he should be allowed to ask his question, but they were ignored.

Lauren then gave Fox an opportunity to answer the question, as much as there was one. She explained that she had been on testosterone blockers, then had surgery. Now, many years later, not only has her body lost whatever advantages the testosterone had given her (her interview kept returning to the importance of planning and preparedness in fighting), but her testosterone levels are likely lower than those of any given women in the audience or in the cage. Someone later added to this information on Twitter by pointing out that ovaries also produce testosterone.

Afterward, I heard several people talking about what had happened. The general form of comments went: The question was terrible, Lauren was awfully rough on that guy, and Fox answered the question gracefully and well. I have exactly one thing to say in response.

That is exactly how this is supposed to work.

Let’s look at how bad that question was. As a frequent moderator, I probably would have broken in at “I really respect you, but…” with “Do you have a question?” because someone proclaiming their “expertise” as an ex-bodybuilder would have already warned me that they were trying to make point rather than asking for information, as well as warning me that it was going to be misinformation.

The “but…” was just a signal that things were only going to get worse from there. They did. He asked about something Fox had already addressed if not in great detail, in terms that suggested she was doing something not respectable, while dodging responsibility for making the insinuation by putting it in other people’s mouths. Then: “your manhood”.

When was the last time you heard a comment about a speaker’s genitalia during a Q&A at an atheist conference? Even without getting into the inappropriately gendered nature of the comment from our “biology expert”, though I fully endorse Amanda Novotny’s first point here, that doesn’t fly. That isn’t something a person signs up for as a speaker. If you can’t figure out how to ask your question without making the question about genitalia, don’t ask it.

If you do ask about a speaker’s genitalia, expect an organizer to do exactly what Lauren did. Organizers aren’t just responsible for and to their attendees. They are also responsible for and to their speakers, including stepping in when someone crosses a line, including escalation as required to resolve the situation.

If the speaker doesn’t do the same, it’s because they don’t have to. They can afford to be gracious and even ridiculously generous when an organizer has their back. That is everything functioning the way it should. Nothing went wrong at Skepticon in an organizer making space for a speaker to look good dealing with an inappropriate question.

Something big did go wrong at Skepticon, however. The “Q&A” session with the Mizzou viral videographer that happened during the lunch after Fox’s talk was all kinds of wrong. I’m not going to go into it in great detail. You can get that from Niki or Jason. My focus here is on Skepticon’s response, though I want to touch on a couple of points.

I was incredibly on edge about this session going into it. On the plus side was language in the talk leading up to it that Mark Schierbecker recognized that we were only seeing part of the picture in the media and they (Scheirbecker and Danielle Muscato) wanted to get more information out. Given that what we’ve seen in the media overwhelmingly represents the interests of the media, as is always the case, I hoped that would mean that we would see the students’ concerns about the media represented.

In an ideal situation, we would have seen a discussion much like this statement that one of the attendees requested via Twitter be read as part of the presentation. That would have been a worthwhile session about the challenges of balancing people’s rights.

On the negative side were the appeals I saw for anyone involved with Concerned Student 1950 to take part. I don’t think any of them explicitly said, “Join us or your concerns won’t be represented.” Still, the calls for people to represent their point of view at something that was happening with or without them very much held that implicit threat, even though I don’t think it was intended.

I dreaded the whole thing, but I felt I needed to be there. It was worse than I expected. I couldn’t stay for the whole thing because it was adding to my incipient migraine.

I’d also like to touch on the question of accusations of racism against Scheirbecker, because it’s one of those things some people seem to think is hugely important. Did Scheirbecker make any flat-out negative generalizations–clear expressions of bigotry–about black people during the session? Not that I saw. Not that other people who have watched the whole thing and don’t have a long history of denying any racial problems in the movement said they saw.

However, that isn’t the only thing people mean when they talk about racism. We also use the word to talk about white-supremacist systems, systems in which the concerns of the white establishment are consistently put before even the most basic concerns of anyone else, particularly black people. This undeniably happened during this session, with statements suggesting we could get back to dealing with threats against black students only when one white videographer’s complaints about getting an insufficient apology for having his camera lens shoved were resolved.

Given that reality, the question of whether we should use the word “racism” to describe this is tedious and tendentious. The problem is not what we call it. The problem is that it happened.

I won’t try to tell you that Skepticon didn’t screw this one up, badly. They did. I do, however, want to point to what they did next.

They told me they’d screwed up. Every one of the organizers I ran into in the aftermath of that session took responsibility for what had just happened. Given that I was at a lunch provided for speakers and volunteers, then in the green room, this was nearly every organizer involved in Skepticon. In case you haven’t been paying attention over the last few years, this is the opposite of how these things usually work. Usually, it’s me or someone else telling organizers that they got something wrong.

Not only did they take responsibility, but they immediate tried to figure out what they could do to fix the problem. Some of them started analyzing what had gone wrong. Some of them worked to figure out their immediate next steps. Emotions were high, but everyone did what they needed to do to cope with those emotions and not make them the problem of the people they’d let down.

Full disclosure again: I helped the organizing committee get their statement together from all the things they were telling me and each other. My only contribution to the content, however, was to suggest that they thank the people who objected during the session and turned it into a real Q&A, so that no one tried to blame those people for making Skepticon look bad. I received instant agreement. I also tracked down a few of the stakeholders in what had happened to ask them to make sure Skepticon’s resulting statement addressed their concerns accurately.

A problem like the one that happened Saturday at Skepticon is an organizer’s nightmare, both in terms of how badly things went off the rails and in terms of facing the fact that it’s your responsibility. It’s no surprise that people’s first inclination is denial, denial of the problem itself or denial of responsibility.

The Skepticon organizers did neither, either with this incident or any other part of planning the conference. That is what I ask from an organization, not perfection but handling problems responsibly. That Skepticon continually proves this is possible is one the big reasons I attend and volunteer there every year.

Skepticon, and Getting It Right When Things Go Wrong

2 thoughts on “Skepticon, and Getting It Right When Things Go Wrong

  1. 1

    Yes very well said. The way these incidents were handled is commendable. Someone should be documenting these kinds of lessons learned so that it can serve as input for future con policies and SOPs.

    Would love to be able to attend but haven’t yet had the opportunity. Though the live streaming option is terrific and the closed captioning is impressive and well appreciated. Kudos and thanks to all involved for making that happen.

    In the interest of organizational learning and continual improvement here are a few ideas rattling around upstairs FWIW.

    How diverse is the Skepticon crew? Are there PoC who are involved in organizing things and wrangling or vetting speakers and panelists and such? If not might that be an area ripe for improvement? Also what about the speakers and panelists and attendees? Are there metrics available on the demographics?

    I guess the main point is does there need to be a proactive and concerted effort to diversify all fronts and to set some measurable objectives around increasing minority representation next year? For example would it be possible to add a diversity director or diversity coordinator into the mix who could focus on this aspect in particular? Maybe partner with some minority organizations and groups in some way?

  2. 2

    This article is pretty much on the mark. Throwing an untested speaker into a slot that was (I believe) meant to be a meal break, without a countering view, and without full disclosure of the relationship between interviewer and interviewee was a major blunder. As long as the lessons have been learnt, any recriminations should be set aside for now.

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