Ladies, Mind Your Manners

I was recently sent a copy of a column titled “He, Too” (pdf) from the September issue of The Rational Alternative, the newsletter of Atheists United in Los Angeles. Sadly, it’s not a call to remember that women and nonbinary people are not the only ones subject to harassment in the secular movement. It is, instead, a suggestion that #metoo is somehow obviating due process in the movement’s efforts to deal with sexual harassment and assault.

The first half of author Bobbie Kirkhart’s article is essentially summed up in one paragraph.

It is a sad surprise that the freethought community is tearing itself up over such accusations and denials. Unless the accused man confesses and apologizes immediately, our discussions on the allegations eat up much of our time and energy, destroy friendships and embarrass our movement. Although there is much emotion involved, I believe we can—and must—look at these things as the rationalists we are.

I suspect that Kirkhart means she’s distressed rather than genuinely surprised. I’ve been doing this too long to be surprised, and she’s been working in the movement longer than I have. I also disagree that confession of wrongdoing stops discussion and prevents strife. People expressing remorse for their actions are still told they have nothing to feel bad about when the subject under discussion is as politicized as harassment and assault are. I’d be a happier person if I’d never seen that happen, but I have.

Black and white, complicated flow chart of a process where every step has something to do with chickens or eggs.
Not all logic makes sense. “Chicken Chicken Flow” by healther vescent, CC BY 2.0

I do agree with Kirkhart that discussions on the topic could be more rational. The number of times I’ve seen an “argument” along the lines of “He’s nice to me/highly respected in his field/chased by other women, so he couldn’t have done that” is appalling. Harassers don’t harass everyone, and often groom others to stand up for them. We’ve seen many highly respected academics and business people turn out to be serial harassers. Harassment and assault don’t happen because people have no other choice; they are a choice. Literally none of those things are correlated with harassing people or not. Still the arguments fly with far too much of the secular movement.

Even more than rationalism, however, I would argue that the secular movement needs a heavy dose of empiricism on the topic of harassment and assault. In this respect, Kirkhart falls woefully short.

Too often I hear, “Women don’t lie about these things.” Hogwash. Even in the 1950s, when complaining about sexual abuse was punished, I knew women who lied. Although it’s still unusual, we must assume that it is increasing with the times, when there is less for the woman to lose. The motives for lying are varied, usually attention, money, or spite. sometimes to discredit an opponent. We should be open to strong evidence of an ulterior motive when an accusation is made.

There’s a lot to unpack in this paragraph. We have the assertion that Kirkhart knew women who lied. It’s not impossible, but we have no evidence for it beyond her word. How do we and she know they lied? Did they accuse respected men who were nice to her? Did the police decide not to bring charges or the prosecutors decline to press a case? Did the complainants recant under pressure? Was there a whisper campaign against them that she believed? Did they brag about lying to their friends?

I don’t bring those up to suggest Kirkhart isn’t being straight with us but because there is actually a great deal of difference in what different people classify as false reports. The less subjective the definition used, the lower the rate of false reports. Kirkhart wants to suggest that we’re being irrational if we’re highly skeptical of the possibility of a false report, but the argument she uses to do that isn’t corrected for her own potential biases. If we want to be weighing probabilities rationally, we have to assign those probabilities with the best information we can get. This is not that.

Then there is this argument that we should expect rates of false reports to be increasing. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an argument that we should expect more false reports these days, but it isn’t any more grounded in fact than the last one. In fact, what we know about false reports suggest there should be fewer false reports now than in the 1950s, because there are fewer consequences to admitting to consensual sex. One of the major motivations to lie about whether sex was consensual has been removed. This may be extra true in the secular movement, with its long history of sex positivity and challenging enforced monogamy.

We also don’t have good evidence that it’s easier to report harassment and assault these days. While it’s true that the “ruin” of a woman’s reputation isn’t the kind of disaster it was in the 1950s, we didn’t have online harassment campaigns waged against people who report high-profile men then either. The situation is different than it used to be, but making a value judgment about whether or how much it’s improved is fraught at best.

It’s also beside the point. Arguing more women will lie now because there aren’t as many disincentives is suggesting women have merely been waiting for their chance to lie about harassment and assault with impunity. That’s frankly bizarre and insulting.

To return to the information on actual false reports, yes, some people do lie. The people who do so tend to lie in lots of situations and lie even when doing so brings them legal trouble. They lie about important things like this because lying is one of their go-to behaviors or because they don’t know what the truth is. They don’t do it just because they can.

If you look at the evidence on who lies, suggesting that we have some duty as a community to keep lies in the front of our mind is simply not rational. The idea that someone is likely to lie—for any reason—without leaving a significant trail of deception in their lives is simply false.

I have heard, “if a number of women tell the same story it must be true.” if we really agreed with that logic, we would all be worshipping Jesus. It seems we have left out the important caveats in this test. “if a number of women who have not heard the story or had opportunity to discuss it tell the same story it is likely to be true.” It is possible that a United States senator lost his seat because of unqualified “truth in numbers” reasoning.

I’m skipping around a bit in the column, but this is also on the topic of assessing claims, so I’ll address it here. I’ve had too much of “Anything I don’t like is religion” arguments. I apologize if I’m unnecessarily abrupt.

In order for reporting sexual harassment and assault to be analogous to religious worship for this argument, the two would have to have relevant similarities. That would mean:

  • Claims of harassment and assault would have to be a cultural norm, expected and supported.
  • Claimants’ experience of whether they’d consented to the behavior in question would somehow have to be in some way disconnected from the reality of whether they’d consented.

Those are the reasons we treat religious claims as suspect: We can explain their experiences simply without recourse to grand theorizing about some hidden nature of reality. We don’t have to reach for the extraordinary claim.

The opposite is true with harassment and assault. We can explain multiple claimants coming forward, because discovering they’re not alone provides them with social support and increases the likelihood they’ll be believed if they tell their stories. The extraordinary claim in this situation would be that there is some kind of contamination inherent in false claims that would make the women who heard them more likely to make false claims of their own. Now, that may make sense if you start from the belief that women are just waiting for a chance to lie about harassment and assault, but I’m going to ask for your proof on that one.

As for Al Franken, he was my senator. I’ve written many times about him being one of the reasons I can’t succumb to political cynicism. The idea that he resigned because of numbers simply isn’t true. Numbers don’t explain a photo in which the opportunity to assault is treated as a joke. Numbers now don’t explain friends and relatives being told years ago about women being groped. Numbers don’t explain old Facebook posts complaining about Franken’s behavior. Franken having a history of groping women explains it. So would a rather large conspiracy theory, but again, that’s an extraordinary claim, where assault is a common one.

As a community, we should not tolerate online verbal wars as a method of settling any dispute, much less this kind.

I don’t disagree with the sentiment, though I find some irony in finding it in an emailed newsletter speaking to a broad dispute. I don’t think the dispute is over quite what Kirkhart thinks it is, though.

As we’re seeing in the Kavanaugh confirmation proceedings, sometimes what professes to be a factual dispute is a dispute about values. Republicans are arguing that Christine Blasey Ford lied, but they’re starting from the position that it doesn’t matter whether Kavanaugh attempted to rape her. The factual argument is a proxy and a way of avoiding the main dispute. She lied, but if she didn’t, she was mistaken, but if she wasn’t, it was really just fine. After all, boys will be boys and shouldn’t be denied a seat on the Supreme Court.

I’d like to be able to argue that our movement is better than this, but in my experience, it’s not. To her credit, Kirkhart takes on the “just fine” argument directly, though I disagree with her.

First, we should ask, “Was the alleged behavior abuse or simply rude?” There is a difference between being offended and being intimidated. Was it a single off-color joke? Women complain, understandably, about a man’s verbal persistence. It can be irritating, but if there is no stalking, no threat—explicit or implied—it falls short of abuse

I’ll try to make this a quick history lesson: We’re not talking about harassment and assault within the movement because of #metoo. We’re talking about it because several years ago, as the movement grew post-9/11, people were asking why there weren’t more women in the movement. Many women spoke up to say they didn’t like being treated as potential dating partners whenever they showed up at a meeting. (Also that they didn’t like being shouted over and couldn’t do events that weren’t child-friendly, but that’s less relevant here.) As we discussed this problem and highlighted the voices of women talking about it, it then became public knowledge that the problem extended as far as assault.

You can try to tell women and other marginalized populations that they should simply put up with people being rude to them. You can try anything you like. However, there are consequences. The main consequence in this case is that the people who disagree with you will by and large go somewhere else. If your goal is to build a movement, chasing groups of people away is usually counterproductive.

And that’s if rude is the proper word and not merely a rug-sweeping minimalization of the problem at hand. This paragraph is vague, but at some point, “verbal persistence” creates a hostile environment and becomes harassment.

This paragraph is also disturbing contrasted with the suggestions elsewhere in the column that discussing and arguing over this is a problem. If someone is rude to you, you and others should be able to discuss that behavior and your reaction to it openly. Is it polite? Eh, we could argue the question. Either way, however, the burden of politeness doesn’t fall on men in Kirkhart’s argument. There’s no reason it should fall on women.

in our community, we have a responsibility to offer our accused members and our accusing members the best justice we can find. When there is strong evidence, we should insist that accused perpetrators accept limits on their involvement in situations that would intimidate others. When there is not, we should not tolerate either side persisting in arguing its case with repeated invective. Our organizations should make and publish standards of personal conduct with explicit, enforceable guidelines.

I don’t really have any argument with this paragraph. I will note, though, that we’ve standards like this in place for years within the movement. It appears Atheists United does not. They do have a recent article arguing one would be incompatible with their mission. Hopefully this column will push the organization to change this. (If they need them, I recommend the resources at Secular Woman.)

The vast majority of national organizations, however, have codes of conduct for their events. Those codes have come into play in more than one recent high-profile accusation, with organizations inconsistently following their own guidelines. However, even when a speaker such as Richard Carrier has admitted to violating the rules of an organization around sexual behavior, some people still argue against excluding him from further events on this basis.* Policies won’t solve the problem on their own. They have to be enforced, and people have to take violations seriously.

As a people devoted to reason, we also have a responsibility to the larger community. We should not miss an opportunity to teach principles of reasoning wherever they are needed, and they are very much needed in allegations of sexual abuse.

This has gotten long, so I’m going to end here on a note of agreement. We do need to continue to teach reasoning, especially on this topic. But one of the first things we need to teach is that our reasoning should be based in fact.

  • By the way, Carrier is still suing me, The Orbit, and others for talking about his behavior. We’re still raising funds for our defense, if you’re able to contribute. We have spent significantly more than we’ve raised to date.
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Ladies, Mind Your Manners
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