Over a year of this crap…

Contextual back-story: Over a year ago now, in South Australian Humanist/Atheist circles, we had what could be called a situation.

Towards the start of 2013, months before this “situation”, I was drafting an anti-harassment policy for the Humanist Society of South Australia (HSSA), during my stint as treasurer. The HSSA, from then and until this day has had a close association with a group now known as the Atheist Community of South Australia (ACSA).

The policy I was drafting drew inspiration from policies enacted by American Atheists, and the Center For Inquiry, with considerations made for local contexts, and a number of rational criticisms of such policies taken into account. The process was supposed to and to some extent did, incorporate criticisms from the floor at meetings – i.e. it was intended to be a democratic process.

(As an aside, I have been informed that the HSSA committee has in the past few months, passed a version of the policy as a bylaw, in lieu of putting it to a vote of the membership. There is of writing however, no sign of the final policy on the HSSA website, nor have I obtained a copy, nor had one sent to me as a member.)

Almost from the inception of the drafting process, there were problems. I was warned by an official of a large atheist group that I shouldn’t attempt it – not from an objection to such policies, but on account of the rubbish I’d have to put up with.

At the very first meeting where I announced the drafting process, I was persistently interrupted by a chap named Mark Senior, who objected to my attempt at a criticism of the attitude behind a t-shirt worn to a convention in the US. What his objection was exactly, can’t be ascertained, given that I never got to voice my criticism for him to respond to in the first place. Suffice to say, it heralded a year of complete horseshit to come.

But yes… the mentioned “situation”. That occurred at first not in the HSSA, but in ACSA, and was noticed by Jason Thibeault of Lousy Canuck fame.

Short version: A bunch of chaps got angry about feminism, “Atheist plussers” and The White Ribbon campaign, a number of these guys also being anxious about the drafting of an anti-harassment policy. Lines were stepped over by a number of parties.

***

What you won’t find on the Lousy Canuck post above, nor in the comments, and what (unless something extraordinary happens) you won’t see me publishing, is a detailed complaint I wrote to the newly-minted ACSA committee against one of the participants in this incident; again, Mark Senior. This complaint is a confidential document despite a good deal of it containing quotes of comments already made by Mark Senior in full view of anyone with a browser available at the time.

There are multiple reasons why I submitted this complaint, and some administrative complexities in the way it was done, but the only one of these issues that you need to worry about, the only one relevant, is that Mark Senior was elected unopposed as the publicity officer of ACSA. This rather important detail was not revealed at the time over at Lousy Canuck, owing to some extent, people’s embarrassment.

So what response did my complaint get? Assurances? A point-by-point rebuttal? Commitments to improve?

In and around this time last year, you’d find Mark Senior looking for a lawyer to help sue me for defamation. According to his own claims, he went to “Camantta [sic] Lempens Lawyers” and “Legal Services SA”.

“My legal advice has informed me that I have a time frame of 12 months to decide whether I take action against the author of this defamatory letter of complaint. The response I receive to this letter and the future (in the short term) behaviour of Bruce Everett will determine what action will take place and when, from a legal viewpoint.”

(Mark Senior, complaining about me to the HSSA committee, 5th July 2013.)

Suffice to say, I didn’t take this prospect very seriously. I didn’t even notice or remember the above “12 months” comment, which closes the letter. (Although I am somewhat aware of a “12 months” rule, at least on account of watching the Julie Posetti defamation allegations unfurl some years earlier.)

I still don’t take this threat very seriously. Why? Because it came from Mark Senior instead of coming from a lawyer. Also, if Senior was so interested in measuring his actions against my behaviour in the short term, why then did he avoid the HSSA for months afterward, and why has he left ACSA altogether?

As for the response his letter of complaint to the HSSA got – it didn’t get one.

Senior also claimed in his letter that “I have been told that in regard to defamation, ‘hurt feelings’ do not qualify as grounds for defamation. My feelings have not been hurt anyhow”, before going on to claim that my actions could seriously damage his career. (Which is to say nothing of the truth of my complaints).

Keep in mind that my complaint to ACSA – the one that he objects to – was never made public, and was only ever carefully distributed among the ACSA committee; a small group of people who have nothing whatsoever to do with Senior’s career.  I’m quite happy to state as fact that no threat to his career originated from my actions, and that efforts were made by all parties concerned to prevent him from receiving unfair treatment.

(I won’t tell you what feedback I got from the ACSA committee – that’s another story in and of itself, and needn’t be made public in any case).

***

So if this is all about professional reputations and legal transgressions, and not instead about Humanist/atheist/sceptic/liberal/social progressive/non sexist “pride”, why did Senior, earlier this year, turn up to a Humanist meeting with an open audience (pub goers), and read from a prepared statement, that…

“I also feel that the main Author of this document has abused his position of power as I can see that a personal agenda has been buried in this final draft paper.”

(Mark Senior, 2014)

The mentioned “document” was of course, the draft HSSA anti-harassment policy, which had been discussed and modified somewhat after two meetings in 2013 which Mark Senior did not attend. A draft which at the beginning of 2014 had just been circulated to members via email for further discussion, after months of delays due to technical difficulties with the HSSA email account.

So what kind of clause constituted evidence of my using an anti-harassment policy draft for a “personal agenda”?

““Interruptions during presentations that persist in a manner that prevents a speaker from delivering their material in a timely manner (e.g. repeatedly talking over a presenter instead of using cues for questioning, such that they have to skip material to make up time).”

This is a very odd and specific example to have as your opening example of ‘harassing behaviour’ in a Harassment Policy and I feel that it clearly relates to a real incident that occurred between myself and the Author (of this final draft) at a talk he was delivering last year at The Astor.”

(Mark Senior, 2014)

Senior’s quote of the policy is accurate. His interpretation of it is somewhat lacking

There was always talk of a non-interruption clause or bylaw among HSSA committee members, ever since at a meeting in 2012, the president was repeatedly interrupted by a chap we’d come to know as “Give ‘em heroin Guy”. Furthermore, it’s not exactly abnormal for a policy to list the interruption of speakers early on in the specifics.

After giving a general definition of “prohibited conduct”, the Center For Inquiry’s harassment policy states in its first mention of specifics…

“Prohibited conduct includes, but is not limited to, yelling at or threatening speakers or attendees, or any significantly disruptive conduct. By way of example, repeated interruption of a speaker by an attendee is prohibited.”

(Center For Inquiry, accessed 2014)

The HSSA anti-harassment policy mentions speaker interruption early on in the definitions, simply because it’s normal for such a document to do so. As for the specifics, if Senior had either turned up to the meetings in 2013 where the policy was discussed, he’d perhaps have been witness to some pertinent facts. Specifically, the wording of an earlier version of the very clause Senior objects to was criticised by a member on the grounds that it was too vague in its scope, and hence able to be abused to gag audience members.

This is, I think, a serious concern – you don’t want to gag critical inquiry, especially not in a Humanist organisation!

The amended clause is as specific as it is, not because of some plot, but as a result of a reasonable request made by a concerned member. Odd that for someone supposedly concerned about defamation, Senior failed to verify such details before mouthing them off in the pub, no?

I sat there patiently listening to Senior’s rubbish, mainly so as to not undermine the president who was busy trying to look neutral in the midst of this clusterfuck, and so as not to contribute to a hostile environment before what turned out to be a great presentation about Responsible Charity, by Chris Rossi.

***

So why on Earth am I bringing this up now? What’s brought this on?

A few things are coming out of the woodwork that make this relevant. Not particularly, but contemporaneously, a series of “Anti-SJW” (Social Justice Warrior) cards have recently been tweeted at people by Mark Senior. These cards target people like Ophelia Benson and Alex Gabriel.

There was this comment by “Mofa”, in response to the “Anti-SJW” card of Ophelia Benson that he tweeted at her, just as there was this comment of “Mofa’s”, the other day,  in response to criticism of “The Amazing Atheist’s” high-profile nastiness.

“P4: People who want to treat cyberspace as a courtroom and defame others deserve to be sued.”

(Mark Senior as “Mofa”, 2014)

(Fun fact: At around the same time as the afore mentioned “situation” of mid-2013, reported upon by Jason Thibeault, Mark Senior, on an email message list now archived by ACSA, referred to the then Atheist Foundation of Australia president David Nicholls, in rather disparaging terms. This drew suggestions of legal action from Nicholls, voiced equally publicly. The message list is no longer available, but I’ve kept the correspondence all the same.)

But really, this doesn’t make Senior’s antics relevant, so much as persistent.

What really gives this topic relevance, is a joint statement against harassment in Freethinker circles by Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins; two folk who followers of the “Deep Rifts” of the last three years, would position at opposite sides of the rift. It’s a long-running series of disagreements that Senior has been invested in as somewhat of an Internet Warrior.

I don’t know if Senior is a Dawkins fan, but I can’t imagine this latter development would please him. If you’ve been depressed by the “Deep Rifts”, or indeed, if you’ve experienced any number of disappointments associated with Dawkins and/or atheism over the last few years, do go and have a read.

It’s worth it, even if only to imagine the response of the trolls and abusers online. Maybe now that a certain amount of tribalism has been diffused, people will be more able to discuss these matters with a degree of civility and candour, instead of the kind of crap that I’ve just detailed.

~ Bruce

Note: Yes, I have quoted a small volume of text, in part from private correspondence. As I am explicitly the subject of this quoted text, I assert my right to quote it, although I have taken steps to minimise the use of private text not relating directly to accusations made against my person. Where quotes are made more freely, the text has been expressed in settings that do not equate to private correspondence. I will not object if other interested parties release full-text, original versions of the quoted materials, and I leave any choice to do so up to their own discretion.