How Not To Write a Code of Conduct

CN: Discussion of harassment and hate speech, transphobia, racism.

In previous years, the more feminist factions of the atheist and skeptic movements pushed events to deal with problems of discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in various ways. One of those ways, and perhaps the most successful one, was encouraging events and groups to have an anti-harassment policy or code of conduct that would spell out what types of behavior were acceptable and how unacceptable behavior would be handled. At the same time, science fiction and fantasy conventions, tech conferences, and other events dealt with the same issues and also responded with a push towards robust codes of conduct. As more and more writers, speakers, and leaders refused to speak at events without good codes of conduct, these policies became common, with almost every relevant event having one displayed on their website.

However, having a harassment policy, code of conduct, or other similar document for your event is not enough. It actually has to be a good one, with clear definitions of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and consequences for those who do not follow it. Those who experience an incident of discrimination, hate speech, sexual harassment, or similar problems need to know how to report these things and how they will be handled. “Don’t be a dick” isn’t sufficient as a definition of what behavior is and is not welcome at your event.

Just one example of a terrible code of conduct came to my attention recently. The event Gateway to Reason will take place in St Louis in late July and does have a code of conduct on their website. While Gateway to Reason is not alone in having a poorly considered conduct policy, theirs is particularly problematic and I’d like to discuss some of the ways it could be improved.

The subtitle of this policy is “The ‘Be Nice’ Policy,” which sounds friendly. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone was just ‘nice’ to each other? Can’t we all just get along? The problem with this is that the subtext is that all “nice” behavior is just fine, and any “not nice” behavior is the problem. The kinds of behaviors that hurt marginalized members of our communities often look nice. A lot of harassment behavior looks nice if you don’t consider the ways in which intimidation and power structures come into the picture. On the other hand, a lot of the ways that marginalized people stand up to our marginalization and push back against it does not look very nice. Niceness is a poor gauge of appropriate behavior.

An otherwise good policy could have a bad title though. That is not the case with this one. It begins:

This includes creating an atmosphere that is sex-positive and harassment-free. All convention participants are required to adhere to our code of conduct for the duration of our 2017 Convention at all convention venues and all convention-related social events. Washington University in St. Louis has a strict No smoking policy anywhere on campus except designated areas.

Why is this event describing itself as “sex-positive?” I mean, there are lots of events where it would make sense to do that. Events specifically targeting kink, poly, or swinging communities would all be good examples of events that might describe themselves as sex-positive. Gateway to Reason is none of those things, and there is no indication elsewhere on the site that this event is intended to be a hybrid secularism/sex themed event. In fact, later in the policy this event is described as “family friendly.” In this context I get the sense that “sex-positive” would be mainly used as a cover for protecting sexual harassers, as anyone objecting to being hit on could be labeled as “sex-negative.” If what the writer of this policy means is that they want to have a policy against slut-shaming, that would be great, but this statement does not appear to say that.

The rule about smoking is a complete non-sequitur. It doesn’t belong in a code of conduct policy at all. If it must be listed somewhere it should be in an FAQ or a rules list or something. It especially does not belong in that paragraph, even from a basic writing structure perspective. It also gives the weird sense that harassment and smoking in the wrong place are somehow equivalent violations.

The code then continues on to a fairly standard non-discrimination statement and definition of harassment. It appears to be copied from the American Atheists event policy and that’s perfectly fine with me, and I have not reproduced it here because it’s standard boilerplate.

Then the policy continues:

Gateway To Reason encourages the use of social media to document and save experiences. Keep in mind to be respectful and mindful of others. Also, cyber-bullying is not permitted in any form.

Gateway To Reason recognizes that derision of religion is common at its convention and welcomes such discussion. However, the harassment of individuals for his or her religious beliefs will not be tolerated. Racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic and generally treating any person poorly will not be tolerated.

The beginning ideas of what the writer wants to communicate are there, but this is nothing like a clear, complete policy statement. Codes of conduct are intended to make clear what conduct is expected, and that is sorely lacking here. Specifically, what should people keep in mind when documenting their experience on social media? Should they ask for consent before taking someone’s picture? What does cyber-bullying mean? Is online conduct during the conference held to the same standard as conduct in the event space?

Specifically discussing how religious differences are to be handled is an important part of a conduct policy at events that target atheists, but wish to be inclusive of other beliefs. This paragraph was also taken from the American Atheists policy, but the wording here sounds like the event encourages derision, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the use of ridicule or scorn to show contempt” or “a state of being laughed at or ridiculed : a state of being derided.” Then, in the following sentence, there is a prohibition against harassment of individuals.

I think this section could be much clearer. If the intention is to allow the mocking of religion and religious beliefs generally, but prohibit going after specific individuals (either those at the event or individuals in general) the policy should say so more clearly. Alternately, if Gateway to Reason wants to allow criticism of religion and debate about religious beliefs, but not cruelty or mocking, then derision was a poor word choice.

The last sentence particularly needs work. Why is it in the same paragraph as the discussion regarding religion? Additionally, the sentence itself is grammatically incorrect. The original line in the American Atheists policy is clearer and states “Racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic conduct will not be tolerated.” The phrase “generally treating any person poorly” is too general to be useful and should be excluded entirely. If there are specific poor treatments the writer has in mind they should be spelled out more specifically. This general wording leaves open the possibility that people will interpret poor treatment to include anything that makes them feel sad – such as being called out on their racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic comments.

The enforcement clause follows, right in the middle of the document, and without any heading. It reads:

Failure to abide by our convention code of conduct will result in ejection from the convention without refund at the sole discretion of convention organizers. Depending upon the situation, Campus Police or local law enforcement may be called to assist.

Once again, some problems arise. First of all, is ejection from the event the lowest possible level of correction possible? While ejection should absolutely be on the table, it’s a fairly extreme measure and should not be the only tool available to event organizers. “…will result in corrective action up to or including ejection” would leave organizers with a much wider range of options and would reassure those who wish to report a violation that they won’t necessarily be getting someone kicked out if that isn’t what they want.

This section is the only time that consequences are mentioned in the document, and nowhere are there instructions for someone who has been subjected to harassment or other violation about how to make a report. Who are people supposed to talk to in the event of a problem? Clarifying how to report a problem is one of the important aspects of a code of conduct, and it is absent here.

A section titled “LGBTQ Friendly Event” follows, with the promise that Gateway to Reason wants their event to be “a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community.” They say:

One way of acknowledging transgender people’s needs and experiences is to designate a number of restrooms gender neutral, which we will do with educational signs. In bathrooms, many transgender people face harassment that can lead to discomfort or even arrest and violence. Such conduct is unacceptable to Gateway To Reason and we aim to create a safe and welcoming environment for all atheist/humanist/seculars, including our “family” in the trans* community.

Gender Pronouns
Gateway to Reason supports the use of a person’s self-identified gender pronoun’s [sic]. Use of They/She/He is very supportive and shows acceptance and understanding. Learning is fun and treating people with respect is amazing. [Her/Them/Him]

This… is a mess. I’m glad to hear that this event will have gender neutral bathrooms, though that doesn’t belong in the code of conduct so much as in an FAQ or along with accessibility information (which, I note, their website lacks completely). Codes of conduct should be about conduct; they tell people how to behave and how not to behave. If there is a specific reason to bring up bathrooms as an individual case in this policy document (perhaps due to problems at a previous event) it would make far more sense to simply spell out what behavior is expected. For example: “Bathrooms at this event will be designated gender neutral, male, and female. Attendees may use any bathrooms that match their identities. Policing bathrooms or confronting anyone else about their use of a bathroom based on gender is considered harassment.”

In the spirit of spelling out exactly what behavior is and is not acceptable, the gender pronouns section could actually be helpful if it were worded in a way that made any sense at all. There are many problems with this section as written (they/he/she are not the only pronoun options available for example), and a complete rewrite is necessary. How about: “All attendees are encouraged to label their conference name tags with the pronouns they would like others to use when referring to them. Please use these pronouns when talking about people. While we know that mistakes happen, repeatedly or intentionally misgendering others is unacceptable.”

And finally, the section I would argue is the worst by far is the section on race. This is the first time I’ve seen an actual full blown dismissal of a major social problem in a so-called code of conduct. The section titled “Racial Inclusivity” reads:

It goes without saying that any skin tone based negativity will not be consistent with the goals of Gateway To Reason 2017. One of this conference’s main goal is to promote, unite, develop and accept universal human conditions without regard or consideration of racial heritage. Gateway To Reason doesn’t accept the concept of race. We are all one and we need each other!

Harassment policies and codes of conduct were created specifically to work towards leveling unlevel playing fields. They call out power structures that exist in organizations and events. When done well they directly recognize the harms caused by issues like racism, and work to combat those harms within the context of the event or organization. They are made useless at best, and actively harmful at worst, when they undermine that mission and push an oppressive narrative.

The problem is not “skin tone based negativity.” The problem is racism, the pernicious combination of prejudice against people of color along with the society wide power held by white people. “Skin tone based negativity” makes it sound like being negative about all “skin tones” is the same. This statement is an “all lives matter” dog-whistle, right there where a full-throated support of people of color in secularism is supposed to be.

We cannot “accept universal human conditions without regard or consideration of racial heritage” because human conditions exist in a world shaped in crucial ways by colonialism and white supremacy. To pretend that is not true is to perpetuate the harm caused by those exact forces. When secular communities recognize their intersections with issues of race and talk about them honestly and openly, we do our best work. When we pretend that difficult history and complicated present are not there, we fail. We especially fail our most vulnerable members by refusing to see how we (white people) contribute to their racial oppression.

If “Gateway to Reason doesn’t accept the concept of race” as an important concept in both history and the present, then it is not a safe event for people of color—and not an acceptable event for white people who oppose racism—to attend.

There is plenty of time for Gateway to Reason to rethink this Code of Conduct. It needs not only to be completely rewritten, but the organizers of this event clearly have some things to learn about how to support marginalized communities in general, and people of color especially. I hope that they choose to do so, and then develop a policy that will actually make this event safe and a positive force in secularism.

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How Not To Write a Code of Conduct

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