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.
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How Not To Write a Code of Conduct

The Importance of People

I am taking a class this quarter called Philosophy of God. While covering the work of Sigmund Freud we briefly touched on the question of whether or not humans are important if there is no God. The consensus of my (mostly religious) class was that of course Atheists must see humans as unimportant because God is what makes humans important. I knew that many people think this of Atheists (as well as thinking that we can’t have morals), but it was interesting to sit and listen to people discuss this idea in the context of the work of a non-believer who spent his long career studying the minds of humans. How could Freud have considered people unimportant while simultaneously spending so much ink on the inner workings of the human mind?
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The Importance of People

Pseudoscience in “Adnan’s Story”

Like millions of others, I have been interested in the story of the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee since the blockbuster hit podcast Serial came out in 2014. I have continued to follow the story through Undisclosed, a podcast by several people working on Syed’s legal defense. That group includes Rabia Chaudry, the woman who first brought Syed’s case to Sarah Koenig of This American Life, who then went on to create Serial. While I have not delved as deeply into this case as some people, I have followed it as the case changed from one seeming fairly hopeless, through Syed’s recent PCR hearing in which his conviction was vacated. He now awaits a new trial.

Rabia Chaudry recently published a new book on the case, Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial. She believes completely in Syed’s innocence, and leaves no room in her book for doubt of that. It contains her own experiences and views on the case, as well as giving Syed a chance to tell parts of the story in his own words. The tone of the book is very personal, including details of both of their personal lives over the course of the 17 years Syed has been imprisoned. I listened to it on audio with Chaudry as the narrator, giving the experience an even more personal feel. It also gives Chaudry an opportunity to float her theory of the case independently, without the limitations of working with a journalist or other lawyers.
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Pseudoscience in “Adnan’s Story”

Multifaceted Causes, and Many Ways to Work Against Violence

CN: Discussion of the attack at Pulse in Orlando, violence and mass murder, hate speech, gun issues, politics, queerphobia, transphobia, racism. Brief mentions of domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide.

A personal note: I’m actually a bit too heartbroken right now to reasonably express my emotions about this situation. I sometimes go a little cerebral in the face of tragedy. If this post about causes and solutions is badly timed for you because it is so soon, that is completely legitimate and I encourage you to read it later.

24 hours after the horrific mass murder in Orlando Florida yesterday my news feeds and social media feeds are a mix of sorrow, fear, and arguments over the causes of and solutions to this kind of horrific event. My friends, along with the rest of the internet, are discussing (with various levels of anger) causes and solutions, and often bitterly disagree about what those might be.

I submit this: It is possible for an event to have many causes, and for all of those causes to be real contributing factors. It is possible to work for multiple solutions to violence and for many or all of those solutions to be good and important causes.

I believe that homophobia and queerphobia in American culture and politics contributed to this mass murder. I believe that because I see violent and hateful rhetoric put forward by political and media figures every day. I hear slurs against my people thrown about by customers in my workplace and people on the street. I read incredibly hateful messages against queer people online constantly, including those that make very clear how many of my fellow Americans want queer people dead.

I believe that homophobia in Muslim communities contributed to this mass murder. I believe this because my Muslim and ex-Muslim friends and loved ones have told me about the homophobia they have experienced in those communities. They have said clearly that they do not want this homophobia erased in this conversation and that they believe that the rhetoric in Muslim communities contributes to violence. I believe them.

I believe that extremism fueled by religious intolerance contributed to this mass murder. I believe that because the perpetrator apparently said so himself. I’m certain that the media will focus on this aspect as a primary cause and that we will learn more in the coming days about his religious beliefs and messages. Some media outlets and politicians will pretend that this is the whole story, and they are wrong, but I will not pretend it is not part of the story.

I believe that toxic masculinity contributed to this mass murder. An important part of toxic ideas of manhood is the idea that violence is an appropriate solution to one’s problems. We know that this killer had a history of spousal abuse and violent rhetoric consistent with toxic masculinity. The idea that picking up a weapon makes one more of a man is a deeply held tenant of patriarchy, and one that I believe contributes to the culture of mass shootings in America and this one in particular.

I believe that the easy availability of guns, and especially extremely deadly assault weapons, contributed to this mass murder. While guns do not create a desire to kill, they make the process much easier. Guns like the AR-15 used in this case are especially effective at killing and injuring many people shockingly quickly. In fact, they are created to do just that. That they are so easy to acquire contributes to the frequency and death rates in this and other similar cases.

It is likely also true that transphobia, transmisogyny, and racism contributed to this mass murder. Pulse is not just a gay bar, but one frequented by the Latin community and was full of people of color on Saturday night. It was not just a gay bar, but also one that featured trans and drag performers. While all queer people are at an increased risk of being victims of violence, queer people of color, trans people, and especially trans women of color are at much higher risk. I cannot ignore the possibility that this club was at higher risk because of these issues. Racism and transphobia are real causes of violence and must be seen as part of this picture.

The causes of violence in general, and this attack in particular, are multifaceted. I believe the solutions are too. A major part of the arguments I have seen today have been over what is “the right way” to prevent things like this in the future. I do not believe there is “a right way” but instead that many struggles can lead towards a future with less violence.

It is crucial that we fight queerphobia in all of its forms from all of its sources. We must fight against oppression in politics, in all religious communities, and in culture. Decreasing hatred of LGBTQIA people decreases our risk of violence. Pretending that queerphobia comes from only one community (Christian churches for example) isn’t helpful, since the sources of queerphobia are legion. When we call out homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia we are working against violence.

It is crucial that we fight toxic masculinity in all of its forms. The idea that the path to strength is through violence creates enormous harm, and we must work against it and against all patriarchy. When we speak out against domestic violence and rape we are working against the kind of pressures that contribute to mass shootings in general and this one in particular. When we fight the patriarchy we are working against violence.

It is crucial that we work for gun control. The current situation of easy access to highly deadly weapons is not working. It puts everyone at risk, through public violence, through tragic but preventable accidents, and through increased risk of suicide by people with easy access to firearms. There is no reason why someone should be able to easily purchase an AR-15. When we work towards legal changes in gun regulations we are working against violence.

It is crucial that we work against Islamophobia. After cases like this the violence and threats of violence Muslim and perceived-to-be-Muslim people experience in America increase noticeably. My Muslim and ex-Muslim friends fear reprisals against themselves and their families from angry people who seek to respond to violence with more violence, often targeted at completely unrelated people. Worse, political and media figures feed this fear and anger by equating Islam with terrorism and talking about things like banning Muslims from coming into the United States. When we fight this rhetoric we are working against violence.

When we work to combat racism, transmisogyny, ableism, and oppression in all of its forms we are working against violence. When we reach out to care for our grieving and frightened friends and loved ones we are working against violence. When we find better, healthier ways to deal with conflict we are working against violence. When we work to heal communities and individuals we are working against violence.

There are many ways to work to prevent the next mass shooting and the next hate crime. I have not covered them all here, not even close. As communities of people who wish to see a world without violence we must work towards all of these goals and more. As individuals we will work on those issues that we are best suited to, or most driven to work on. This is as it should be. Arguing over which is “the right way” to work against violence isn’t helpful. Instead, let’s do the work.

Multifaceted Causes, and Many Ways to Work Against Violence

Almost Right, But Oh So Wrong

CN: Transphobia, bathroom policies, hate speech, Christian apologetics, swear words. I might be channeling Niki a little with the language here. Also, fair warning that this post is a little less polished than usual because I’m pissed off.

Additional Note: The link the post I’m talking about is currently not working, and I’m aware of it. In fact the entire blog seems to have disappeared at the moment, but I don’t know why.(4/27/2016 8:15am CST) It’s back up this evening (4/27/2016 11:30pm CST)

Comment Moderation Note: Comments questioning the legitimacy of transgender people’s identities are not allowed on this blog and will not be allowed through. Trans men are men, trans women are women. Don’t waste either of our time by suggesting otherwise in the comment section. (4/30/2016 2:15pm CST)

This week a self-identified “straight conservative preacher’s wife” named Jaci Lambert wrote about her reactions to Target’s bathroom policy, which is long-standing and states that people in their stores are welcome to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Lambert says she understands why Christians are so angry about Target’s policy, but wants her fellow Christians to display more love and understanding rather than anger and boycotts. She also points out that sexual assault happens in lots of contexts, including in parish communities, and keeping trans people out of bathrooms isn’t an effective safety mechanism.

So, she’s got those parts kinda right. Everything else in this post is oh so wrong.
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Almost Right, But Oh So Wrong

Review of Freethought Festival

CN: Very mild mentions of ableism, trans erasure, alcohol.

I attended Freethought Festival in Madison Wisconsin this past weekend. This was the 5th time the students at University of Wisconsin have hosted this event, and I have attended all of them largely because it’s free and in my home town. Three Orbit bloggers, Heina, Greta, and Alix, have spoken at this event over the years.

Freethought Festival (FTF) is definitely a mainstream Atheist event. The keynote speaker this year was James Randi, though I missed his talk because I needed to leave town. Despite being a student-run event, the audience isn’t very diverse, with a high percentage of older white men. The speakers were 69% male, 85% white this year, though this has varied in years past with a more gender balanced group of speakers in 2015 and 2013. It does not put itself forward as a social justice event, but has featured talks with distinctly justice oriented themes, such as Alix’s talk on diversity in the atheist community in 2012 and Desiree Schell’s talk on the links between unions and freethought in 2013.

In the 5 years I have attended FTF I have not attended every talk or every social event, but I have attended some portion of all 5 events. I have seen some really fascinating talks, and a few boring ones. I have heard some things I disagreed with from the stage, but that is to be expected, and nothing really stands out to me as shockingly offensive in my memory.

The event is FREE! This is a major bonus for those, like me, who have little funds to attend atheist conventions. If you can get there, you can attend. The event itself is free, and located in an area with reasonably inexpensive food, including grocery stores and fast food nearby (there are great restaurants too). Those who live in Madison can get there easily, but those from outside the area may struggle to find highly affordable accommodations in the downtown area. There is a hostel in the area though, which may be the cheapest option for visitors. It’s a short bus or medium length walk from campus.

The spaces used by this event have been increasingly attractive and comfortable over the past few years. It began in a lecture hall in the old uncomfortable Humanities Building, and has moved to more and more comfortable spaces over time. The most recent space was a big ballroom in a brand new building, with neat textured wood walls and a generally clean and well-made feel. It definitely feels different than the old lecture hall and the audio-visual tech has improved dramatically over the years.

FTF has a harassment policy on their website, which is easily found on the “Event Information” page. The policy is a pretty standard boilerplate policy, without any glaring problems. In my experience the wording of a harassment policy isn’t as important as how it is enforced, and I am not aware of any problems with enforcement at this particular event. In fact, since I am not involved in the running of this event, I’m unaware of any reported incidents of harassment so it is possible that there have not been any reasons for enforcement at this time. I did NOT see any paperwork on the harassment policy at the event itself, including on the registration desk, but I didn’t go looking for it either. One way this event could improve is by making the policy (or a short version of it) visible at the event itself.

The website and physical location had absolutely no recognition that I could find of the existence of disabled attendees. While the building it was held in this year and the past few years have complied with ADA requirements (unlike the first year), there was no seating set aside for people using mobility devices, no ASL interpretation or transcription, no discussion of accessibility issues on the website or paperwork at registration. This is a major area that FTF could improve. It is incredibly inexpensive to include accessibility information on the website and to set aside reserved mobility seating at the event. While including interpreters and similar accommodations can be expensive, I think it’s worth it to make an event accessible to more attendees.

From a neuroaccessibility perspective I didn’t find this event to be as comfortable as I found Skepticon this past year. That event actively works to recognize that their attendees have varied physical needs and have been at the forefront of accessible events even while still charging nothing to attend. At FTF I brought my own fidgets and found that the volume was very comfortable for me (maybe too quiet for others) but it didn’t feel like a space that was actively trying to be inclusive of everyone.

The building FTF was held in this year, as well as the one with the social events, did not have a gender neutral bathroom, or at least not one that was easy to find. If there is one available, this should be indicated to attendees with signs or something similar. The absence of neutral bathrooms, and no commentary about it, indicates that the event organizers may be unaware that this is an important issue. Gender non-binary attendees and trans attendees who desire neutral bathrooms should have a safe place to use, and if none is available the event should work to remedy this situation and acknowledge the problem publicly.

The social events for FTF are a major area in which they could improve. People are encouraged to socialize at the Union South, a student union several blocks walk from the main event. The Union itself is pretty cool, but the rooms these events have been in for the past 2 years are frankly boring and uncomfortable. This year there was definitely not enough space for the number of people who wanted to socialize due to the building code restrictions, which meant people spilled out into the halls. The social culture revolves around beer and talking very loudly in rooms that echo. Not great. Even worse, you have to go down a flight of stairs and across the lower level into a SUPER loud bar area to order beer or appetizers, then bring them back up to the socializing area. I’m sure alternatives must exist for this set-up, perhaps in any one of the many near-campus restaurants or coffee shops nearby. In fact, an alcohol-free social event in a nearby coffee shop would be ideal. I like drinking, but this is a student run event that should include the underage students they want to reach, and the social events should reflect that.

I’m going to keep attending Freethought Festival in future years, because they continue to bring in speakers I am interested in seeing and it’s easy for me to go to a free event in my home town. I’d love to see the improvements in accessibility and social events that could lead to this being a much more accepting and fun event to attend.

Review of Freethought Festival