There’s yet another misapprehension about language in the present ongoing discussion about sexism and harassment in our respective communities lately. I say yet another because they seem to comprise vast majority of the most jarring moments in these conversations — when people don’t understand one word or another, and fight for days about whether this parsing or another is more correct.

The entirety of the “witch-hunt” trolling that the pro-harassment-policies folks have endured stems from some misapprehension that the informal “watch out for this guy” network that Jen brought up in the original incident meant that there was actually a written list and that we were planning on trying to make conventions blackball these folks based on “rumors and innuendo”.

The “Taliban” accusations with regard to “dress codes” could be attributable to a perfectly honest misunderstanding about whether or not the proposed sample policy from the Geek Feminism wiki meant by the so-called “no booth babes” clauses. Of course, one would have to be quite charitable to presume the specific people initiating that meme had an honest misunderstanding, since they’ve done so much for so long to fight against the idea of feminism intersecting the skeptical or atheist movements. But one could attribute the meme’s spread to legitimate misunderstandings from people who weren’t skeptical enough to check the source materials and took the words of those authoritative voices.

And then there’s “safe spaces”.

Even DJ Grothe got that one wrong. Which, frankly, surprises the living hell out of me.

In USA Today, Rebecca Watson was interviewed with regard to the problem she’s somehow catalyzed by the horrific act of advising men not to act inadvertently predatorily if they don’t want to creep their flirting targets out. She said this about the community after the backlash and rape and murder threats ensued:

“I thought it was a safe space,” Watson said of the freethought community. “The biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that it is not a safe space and we have a lot of growing to do. The good news is there are a lot of people within the community who are interested in making it better and getting rid of our prejudices.”

When DJ later hypothesized that the reason TAM’s female attendance was down owed largely to women and their “irresponsible messaging” giving people the impression that TAM was an unsafe space — as in, women attending TAM would likely get harassed, molested, raped or killed. But nobody’s ever said that.

DJ further overstated his case by saying that nobody’s ever reported any harassment at any of the TAMs that have taken place since he’s been president. This was, of course, demonstrably wrong — there were a small number of reported incidents that he’s since forgotten.

But does anyone think, like the outright trolls and those who think harassment policies are just a bete noir of the radical feminist element who’ve infested their good-old-boys’ atheism and skepticism do, that anyone thinks this harassment is atypical, that what you encounter at TAM is any WORSE than the background levels of harassment in general society?

I strongly doubt that. I suspect that at absolute worst, people think that TAM is exactly as likely as any other place in general society to end up on the receiving end of harassment.

But that should be damning in and of itself, shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t we, the skeptics, the people who examine received dogmas and who question them in an effort to keep people from harming themselves with horrible memetics that propagate from liars and charlatans, be above engaging in activities like harassment that directly harm people? Shouldn’t our community be a safe space for women as well as men, and shouldn’t the memes that lead to excluding them from our endeavours be questioned just as thoroughly as God or Bigfoot?

And yet, trolls still think that the distinction between a safe space, an unsafe space, and a “not safe” space, is sophistry.

WilloNyx attempted to explain the difference in a post at her blog:

See, the general population is not what I call a “safe space for women.” What do I mean by that? At work, if I am sexually harassed by a coworker, I don’t feel confident that it will be dealt with when I report it. I have watched sexual harassment being reported. It wasn’t taken seriously. Another example: If I am raped, If I am sexually assaulted, I am fairly confident that reporting it will result in slut shaming and victim blaming. I am fairly confident that my entire past sexual history will be cause for my rapist or assaulter to go unpunished, that it will be assumed I was asking for it.

To me for the general population to become “safe for women” it needs to take extra precautions to make sure that the current attitudes of a culture (you know that patriarchy) don’t prohibit women from seeking legal or even emotional recourse for those if’s that may come up. Creating a safe space for women in the general population may be having something like specially trained police to deal with victims of sexual abuse. It may be that a workplace has sexual harassment training periodically. It may even be a domestic violence shelter that has gone so far in making a safe space for women that it creates a “not safe space” or “unsafe space” for men genderfluid or transgender people.

Making the general population “safe for women” overall won’t happen until the culture changes. No matter how many rules we create, we also need to trust those rules will be enforced. So instead we carve out lots of little niches and claim some places as “safe for women” some places as “not safe for women” and some places as “unsafe for women.”

Gays often have to build safe spaces so they have places of refuge — at schools most prevalently, but often in other communities — and in fact, it seems the whole definition of “safe space” originates with the LGBTQ fights. Which is why I’m so gobsmacked that DJ Grothe, who claims his homosexuality sensitizes him to issues of sexism and homosexism, might mistake “not a safe space” with “an unsafe space”.

We don’t have a problem with this community being a “not safe for women” space. Well, not to any extraordinary extent — the outright misogyny you’ll get online if you’re a girl in the gamer communities is probably significantly higher. If anything, our communities are only about as not-safe as all communities weighed and averaged, online or off.

What we DO have in this community, however, is a problem with bullies. Misogynists who don’t like women trying to take part in our conversations. Trolls who attack women — and generally mostly women because they’re deemed easy targets — just to get a rise out of them. People who just want all these women to shut up about all the times they’re told they’re going to be raped or attacked. And the well-intentioned who don’t have any clue what splash damage is, and who just want everyone to shut up so they can go back to “more important” issues. Sometimes they say “you should stand up to the bullies, but also take all these ridiculous precautions that no reasonable person should ever have to take just to stay safe”. Sometimes they outright tell you they’re going to hurt you themselves. Sometimes they try to call you the bully for talking about people bullying you. The bar for bullying anonymously is so low that it happens all the time, every day and at huge volumes and extraordinarily low cost, and it does despite some folks’ best efforts wear on you over time.

And sometimes the bullies win. (Seriously, I was just writing this part when Ophelia made this news public. Pardon any tone shift as a result.) The bullies sometimes win when they make a marginalized person stop fighting and give up on any single fight because they’ve exhausted their personal reserves. They sometimes win by outlasting their victims. If the infrastructures that are supposed to make up the foundation of our community shrug their shoulders, rather than supporting these people when they need it, then the bullies win and those infrastructures are complicit.

We have a problem in this community. It is not a safe space for women, or frankly, for anyone in any position of underprivilege. We know it is a problem because many of us skeptics and atheists recognize that there’s a serious need for our movements to be composed of more than just old rich white libertarian men in order to bring ideas into a movement that is otherwise handling the same few ideas over and over again, while leaving others wholly unexamined. And it’s a fixable problem, but it takes changing the culture; waking people up to the fact that diversity is its own good. And in order to get minority voices into the movement to give us more universal perspective about our atheistic or skeptical movements, we first need to stop people from hurling insults and threats at them, at minimum.

That means we need to make it a safe space — as in, better than the background radiation they encounter in everyday life. If someone can get the exact same amount of opprobrium for their sex or gender or trans status or race by running around doing things that take less work and less directed effort and advocacy, they will. The ones that are left are naturally selected to be feisty… to have enough left over in their wells to tackle the problems of bullying and harassment head-on even while they’re fighting the fights that brought us together in the first place. So it’s up to these feisty ones to carve out a space and make it safe by defending it. But they can’t do it individually, because the trolls can issue their threats and bluster at such a low cost and they are such a rotating door of minor henchmen that every message becomes a war of attrition — including the messages that involve whether “people like you” are even allowed here.

You can’t just declare a space safe by fiat. You have to build such a space. Doing this makes some spaces unsafe for certain types of people — usually the people who’d rather this other underprivileged group just leave. And in a territory so apparently thoroughly entrenched in its ways, with such pervasive memetics that fight back against these efforts to improve diversity, it’s an uphill struggle. Every piece of territory taken must be fought over and over and over or it will be lost.

But if you love the ideas around which your community is built, even if the fight is exactly the same as one you’d have in any other level of society, it’s a fight worth having. If you’re passionate about skepticism, if you’re passionate about examining otherwise unquestioned dogmas, you’ll recognize the number of dogmas it takes having before you’re willing to bully whole groups of people out of the movement just for being different.

And you’ll have no problem bullying those bullies right out. Just like with Christians who demand the right to bully gays or else they cry that you’re discriminating against them.

This fight is EXACTLY IDENTICAL to that one.


Sorry this is probably unpolished. I’m posting in a bit of a moment of anger.


71 thoughts on “Safe

  1. 51

    To repeat a comment I made this morning at Skepchick: If TAM wants to consign themselves to the trash can of history, fine by me. Good riddance. Don’t let the screen door hit ya where developmental processes shaped by billions of years of Darwinian accidents split ya.

    Why is it that these damned libertarians never actually believe that the invisible hand of the free market could slap them upside the head?

    My friend Josh and I were comparing notes a while ago, and we realised that we’ve yet to find anyone who read Atlas Shrugged and then said, “Hey, I must be one of the parasites who are leeching and mooching off the true creative geniuses!”

  2. 52

    My friend Josh and I were comparing notes a while ago, and we realised that we’ve yet to find anyone who read Atlas Shrugged and then said, “Hey, I must be one of the parasites who are leeching and mooching off the true creative geniuses!”

    And one can only wonder if Ayn Rand had any idea what she was suggesting when she brought that meme into the public discourse, because I know for certain she was not one of those creative geniuses on whom society rested. Neither, so far as I can tell, are any of her devout followers.

    Libertarianism in the economic sense is every bit the dogma that religion is. It’s a shame civil libertarianism is so co-opted by the woo that is the Invisible Hand deity.

  3. 53

    It’s a shame civil libertarianism is so co-opted by the woo that is the Invisible Hand deity.

    Co-opted is putting it mildly, since the first people to self identify as libertarians were in fact communists. In fact it wasn’t until the 1950s that Rothbard and his foul kind decided to steal the term for their own use. The term libertarian socialist is still in use by Chomsky and others (like, say, me) as a sort of polite euphemism for anarcho-communism.

  4. 54

    Somewhat OT, but…

    “Libertarianism in the economic sense is every bit the dogma that religion is. It’s a shame civil libertarianism is so co-opted by the woo that is the Invisible Hand deity.”

    They haven’t co-opted me. I am all for civil liberties, but I am also all for better income redistribution…because it sucks having all this civil freedom only never to enjoy it, because the Invisible Hand deity has left most of us behind living in a carboard boxes. To me, this is not true freedom even in the slightest.

  5. 55

    I’m still unclear on what the meaning of ‘safe space’ should be in the sentence “This freethought event is not a safe space for women.” I listed three possibilities, and I’m sure there are several more available. I tend to assume that any ideas that run counter to feminism are typically barred from a ‘safe space’ in the relevant sense of the phrase, as per the geek feminism wiki, but that raises a whole other set of problems regarding enforcement. Online forums are easily policed so as to prevent certain kinds of dissent, but I’m pretty sure you cannot get conference security to boot someone for running plays from the MRA handbook in the course of a free-flowing debate with several people from all along the political spectrum.

  6. 56

    @D4M10n, I suggest you start trying to conceptualise “safe space” as a social justice ideal rather than just as a feminist ideal.

    It’s about creating spaces where the usual societal marginalisation is actively worked against.

  7. 57

    P.S. Your framing of the concept regarding ideas and dissent is also way off the mark. Safe spaces are about the recognition and calling out of inappropriate behaviours first and foremost.

  8. 58

    Your framing of the concept regarding ideas and dissent is also way off the mark…

    I hope you are right about that, but it’s not my framing at all. I wanted to have a working definition of safe space (outside of common LGBT usage) and since the OP favorably cited the geek feminism wiki, I looked up their definition:

    The ideas condemned therein are “standard mainstream stereotypes” along with anti-feminist viewpoints, which must be disallowed so as to facilitate more advanced discussions of feminism between feminists. Expanding this conception of ‘safe space’ to social justice, one might assume that pro-capitalist or libertarian views should be similarly disallowed, which might help explain some of the comments above regarding how libertarian skeptics cannot continue to coexist with progressive humanists.

  9. 59

    It is not that these views must needs be disallowed. I’ll allow all sorts of contentious conversation on my blog. I won’t allow personal invective or making shit up, for the most part, and I won’t generally allow slurs. I also won’t allow festering anti-feminist sentiment as a matter of course, but that’s usually challenged pretty quickly, and I mostly only squish particularly tiresome and repetitive folks who don’t engage on the arguments.

    And libertarian ideals are very woo-heavy in my estimation, so it’s entirely in our bailiwick to challenge them.

  10. 60

    Expanding this conception of ‘safe space’ to social justice, one might assume that pro-capitalist or libertarian views should be similarly disallowed, which might help explain some of the comments above regarding how libertarian skeptics cannot continue to coexist with progressive humanists.

    I’m sure most people will agree with me when I say that Libertarians are welcome to come and help by suggesting free-market solutions to social justice issues. However, they are not free to deny there is an issue that needs solving, or that it can’t be solved, or that it will solve all on its own. Right to your own opinions, not to your own facts, and all that.

  11. 62

    Re: Libertarians

    In my country, the ones closer to Libertarians would be what we call the Ultra-Libéraux.
    They are right in-between the major right-wing party and the wannabe neo-nazi…
    To be fair, maybe some of our ultra-left parties would fit the libertarian line as well.

    Re: safe space for women

    I started getting clues about women wanting safe spaces when I noticed the woman-only fitness clubs in North America.

    Also, at about the same time, a woman compatriot told me about a nightclub in the city of Nice, Le Club. In theory, it’s a club for gay men.
    But where will a party of (straight) women want to go if they want a night out drinking and chatting, with limited male interference? Yes, they went to this Club.
    After a while, the (straight) men noticed it, so they went to the Club, too. Which soon stopped to be a safe place for either gay or women. Not in the sense that it became a hive of scum (actually have no idea one way or another), just that if you are gay or a woman and want to relax, the Club is not anymore the place to go.

  12. 63

    Heliantus – I think that’s happened in every gay bar I’ve ever been to.

    1) Straight woman goes along with her gay male friend.

    2) Tells her friends “It’s so cool, and nobody feels you up!”

    3) More straight women every night.

    4) Straight men follow.

    5) The place is taken over by these .tourists’, weekends see the place choked with wooed ok hen mights.

    6) Lesbians are verbally, and sometimes physically, abused for daring to talk to women. Women kissing attract disgust from the straight women, and leering from straight men, as well as crude comments, come-ons, and sexual harassment.

    7) The lesbians desert the place. It’s not safe or fun anymore.

    8) Gay men attract aggression and violence for going anywhera near a straight man, queueing at the bar, or using the. toilet, can become a blood sport. Gay men kissing. each other attract stares, threats, aggression, and even violence

    9) The gay men move on, like their sisters. Nor safe, not fun.

    and finally:

    10) The novelty wears off for the straight ‘tourists’, and they desert too. Straight women don’t feel safe,and move to a new gay bar. The place closes due to lack of customers.

    Every. Fucking. Time. I’ve had more than one straight woman tell me that it’s our duty to provide them with somewhere to party. We’re told “You’re lucky, the men here don’t bother you. Oh, but please don’t hit on us or dance with us, we’re not like that. But, y’know, I’ve never tried it, and…”

    It’s beyond annoying, it’s often devastating, especially in places with only a small scene. Straight pubs and bars tend not to offer reciprocal safe spaces for us.

    We end up socialising in small groups at each others homes, which is fine if you’re established out there, but then there’s no real-life place of safety for newly out people who’re trying to find their way.

    That’s privilege for ya though, “Yeah we have a whole city centre full of bars to drink in, but we want yours,we want to see what you do and who you are, we want to use your space on OUR terms.

  13. 65

    My friend Josh and I were comparing notes a while ago, and we realised that we’ve yet to find anyone who read Atlas Shrugged and then said, “Hey, I must be one of the parasites who are leeching and mooching off the true creative geniuses!”

    I actually did have worries of that sort, when I was a libertarian.

    (Though I hadn’t read Atlas at the time; I didn’t read it until after I’d abandoned libertarianism. I wasn’t missing much. It isn’t particularly good.)

  14. 68

    SilentBob @22

    In ordinary English, the prefix “un” indicates “not”. If my shoelaces are untied, they are not tied. If my wine is uncorked, it is not corked. If my hair is uncombed, it is not combed. Etc.

    These examples are binary distinctions. Clearly, untied = not tied. Safety is a matter of degree.

    It may be a slightly arbitrary “term of art” but it seems most sensible to use “not a safe space” to mean a space that is not notable for its safety, and “unsafe” as a space notable for its lack of safety.

    In everyday, jargon-free English, “not a safe space” is exactly equivalent to “dangerous space”.

    We obviously speak different forms of English. Where I come from on the scale from warm and cozy to probably deadly, “dangerous” is well toward the latter while “not safe” is pretty close to the neutral condition.

    It’s easy for us privileged types to imagine any degree of unsafety as distinct from our typical expectation of protection not just from harm but also from unpleasantness. For many people a “safe space” is one that is simply less dangerous than usual.

  15. ik

    ” pro-capitalist or libertarian views should be similarly disallowed, which might help explain some of the comments above regarding how libertarian skeptics cannot continue to coexist with progressive humanists.”


    For one thing, what even is capitalism anymore?

    For another thing, there are libertarians and then there are libertarians. There are the right-wingers and the infantilist ‘dont tell me what to do’ types, and then there are the ones who want a libertarian (and DEFINITELY not vaguely anarcho-communist) future but recognize that somebody powerful needs to make the world more just. While I generally oppose the latter group, they could hardly belong in this discussion more!.

    Personally, I’m rooting for the Authoritarian State of Not Oppressing People, though.

    Incidentally, does anybody thing that ‘unsafe spaces’ should be intentionally maintained? Pretty much they would be spaces of limited size where freedom of speech is paramount and unlimited. Among other things, might improve working out some kinds of theories. Like most people, SJ advocates are not great with uncomfortable findings that might or might not be truths.

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