Guest Post over at B&W: The Good Juror Pose

It’s been almost two weeks since I mailed this essay off to Ophelia Benson, but I’ve been on holiday in Melbourne sans notebook and passwords for most of the time. You’ll have to forgive me for my tardiness.

There seems to be a trend of late, of people lecturing jurisprudence at people who it is reasonable to assume, have been victims of rape or sexual assault. Notably, it’s often not just “Skeptics”, but “Skeptics” with friends accused of acting up and pestering people sexually (or worse), who engage in this practice.

It’s not that the presumption of innocence is to be suspended, it’s just that the presumption of innocence is often irrelevant to the context these discussions are taking place in, with potentially harmful consequences. I spend 2600 words (including quotes) on the matter over here

~ Bruce

This is what PR dissembling looks like…

For those of you who don’t know, Karen Stollznow, sceptic, public speaker and author, revealed her account of how sexual harassment was dealt with in a recent Scientific American blog post. You can read that here.

Subsequent to this publication, multiple outlets are now naming the alleged sexual harasser/stalker, as the relatively high profile sceptic, Ben Radford. As I’m not privy to the details or evidence, I’ll not speculate on his guilt, but I suspect more details are going to come out in the wash at some point.

The employer, also not named in Karen Stollznow’s post, has since been named as the Center for Inquiry (CFI). CFI has now responded to all of this in typically boilerplate language. You can read their response in full, here.

For a moment ignoring the names, that have been named thus far, the personal politics, and the potential culpability of individuals in this matter, this is a strange document that borders on the meaningless. It’s almost a deepity in PR long-form.

“As a general rule, CFI does not discuss personnel matters in public. We refrain from discussing these matters in public not only out of consideration for our staff, but also because experience has shown that this is the best way to encourage people to come forward with complaints.”

In general yes, this is a good strategy. Especially before due process has worked its way through (something Karen Stollznow complied with).

But CFI is responding to a specific case here, and in this case Karen Stollznow has opted to go public owing to the alleged inadequacy of CFI’s process, and after the process has completed at that. Keeping things private in this context, is meaningless; CFI can’t keep it private because it’s already public, and it’s what CFI does under the veil of privacy that is in question.

People with potential complains seeing this case unfold, aren’t going to be worried about CFI’s ability to keep things in-house. Indeed, Stollznow, and about every other critic of CFI’s management, positively speak to CFI’s ability to maintain the hush.

Further, who’s decision is it, ultimately, to keep things quiet, or go public, if something has gone wrong? That’s not the organisation’s call, and unless we see court action deciding to the contrary, it was Karen Stollznow’s right to bring this to light.

What does CFI think people with complaints about harassment are more likely to be worried about – that CFI will go public with their information, if the issue is already public, or that CFI will decide of its own accord, without regard to the wishes of the person making the complaint, what level of openness is appropriate?

Yes, there are legal concerns about going public, for all parties, but in it’s release, CFI doesn’t cite this as a justification. CFI claims it doesn’t want to deter future complaints.

CFI’s response reduces the serious matter of privacy, from a human relations concern, to the level of marketing pablum.

And then things proceed to where the wheels really begin to fall off…

“However, we would like to make it clear that any suggestion that CFI has been less than diligent in addressing harassment complaints is mistaken. During the administration of current president and CEO, Ronald A. Lindsay, that is since July 2008, CFI has investigated all complaints that have been made to management, and, where necessary, has taken appropriate corrective action. “

On the face of it, this looks like a good thing, right? Investigating every case? Good-o.

“Neither allegations nor denials determine the actions CFI takes. The results of the investigation determine the actions taken by CFI. If CFI has employed an outside investigator, we go with the investigator’s findings; we do not substitute our suspicions. If the investigator found, for example, that a sexual assault occurred, we would accept that finding; likewise, if the investigator found that no sexual assault occurred, we would accept that finding.”

If you’ve read the whole release, you’ll notice that the remainder is mostly rhetoric in this vein, talking about rumor and gossip, while ironically not even vaguely citing any examples of rumor and gossip – CFI is gossiping about alleged gossip. While I’m not commenting on Ben Radford’s guilt, I wouldn’t dismiss Karen Stollznow’s concerns as “gossip”.

That aside, and to the point I want to make – CFI defers to investigators, in deciding the facts. It’s fair to say, that seeing as CFI acknowledged that sexual harassment did indeed occur, there are at least some facts between CFI and Karen Stollznow that are uncontested.

Furthermore, it’s the allegedly lax penalties for sexual harassment that were met out by CFI that Karen Stollznow disputes in her article. Are we to believe that CFI outsources it’s values as well, such that independent investigators also decide upon penalties, in addition to the facts of the case?

No. This is Ron Lindsay’s job, and the accusation is that he failed to appreciate the implications of the facts, such that remedial action was inadequate.

Raising the matter of independent investigators is an irrelevant act of self-promotion that (by design?) distracts people from the substance of Karen Stollznow’s concerns.

I’m not entirely sure that distracting attention from the substance of complaints, and dismissing them as gossip, is going to make people more comfortable with the prospect of making complaints to CFI. But if you’re not actually facing this prospect, and you can’t tease the implications out of the boilerplate language, then I guess CFI’s release would look nice and fuzzy.

I’m wondering how long they can manage to keep treating this matter like a PR issue, and making fatuous statements about privacy, instead of realizing that transparency about the process is the solution.

~ Bruce

In Dawkins’ Honour?

Dawkins - photo by Marty Stone Over much of the past two years in political circles, a slew of polemics have been argued, over the online harassment directed at women. Even the list of more recent incidents spawning these debates is expansive; the harassment of feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian; the viral video of Prime Minister Julia Gillard criticising Tony Abbott’s relationship with misogyny; the multiple waves online of chauvinist vitriol directed at amongst others, New Statesman columnist, Laurie Penny, and so it goes.

A heavy reliance on the Internet for communication leaves atheist and free-thought communities, especially in the US, potentially wide open to abusive interaction, whatever the disposition of their constituencies. One could go into great detail discussing the event that saw the crystallisation of the phenomena in secular circles online; “ElevatorGate” in 2011. However, I’ll try to be brief.

In 2011, atheist, sceptic and feminist blogger, Rebecca Watson, in the middle of a YouTube video post, pointed out that it wasn’t a good move for guys to introduce themselves at 4am, in an elevator, asking a woman to “…come to my hotel room for coffee?” Initially, this mild comment prompted a series of alleged and mostly unrelated grievances to be aired by Watson’s detractors.

Then Prof. Richard Dawkins entered the fray with his now infamous “Dear Muslima” commentary, sarcastically deriding Rebecca Watson’s supposed lack of perspective; Muslim women were being treated like dirt the world over, while Watson complained about guys in elevators. Imagine it as Dawkins’ take on “First World Problems”; very dry, at least a little truculent, and with a hint of unstated grievances.

What followed was an escalation in online abuse; “she’s too ugly to rape”; “I hope she gets raped so she knows what real abuse is”; “if I’m ever in an elevator with her, I’ll cop a feel”; “…Rebeccunt Twatson…”. And of course, there have been the ever-present images depicting feats Laurie Penny would likely describe as “sphincter stretchingly implausible”. This torrent of vitriol rapidly engulfed other targets, all while maintaining the same intensity of malice and irrationality.

Possibly the most sinister act amongst all of this, was an incident endured by Amy Roth in 2012.

The Slymepit”, an Internet cesspool of vex and loathing, dedicated to attacking Rebecca Watson and fellow travellers, was to temporarily play host to the publication of Amy Roth’s home address. Despite an allegedly public source for such personal information, you have to ask; what was the implied, suggested use for Roth’s home address, being posted at such a forum?

The individual posting Amy Roth’s home address, one Justin Vacula, coupled this act to a claim of “censorship” at Roth’s instigation, on account of her filing of a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) claim on a particular photo of hers, and only the photo, to be withdrawn from a post of his authoring. As of writing, Vacula’s description of the exchange, published at the Southern Poverty Law Centre listed hate site, A Voice For Men, fails to accurately describe all the relevant details (i.e. that the article was not in fact, “censored”).

But aside from the obvious, what has any of this got to do with Richard Dawkins?

To simply state that abuse has followed Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” comments, ergo Dawkins’ responsibility, would be an instance of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy so loved by reactionaries. As far as I can ascertain, Dawkins has offered neither tacit, nor explicit endorsement of the mentioned abuse. Rather, from “ElevatorGate” onwards, it seems often to be a case of overzealous Dawkins fans appointing trolling duties to themselves.

Still, at a time when men are increasingly being called upon to decry misogyny, sexism and online abuse, Dawkins’ continuing silence on a phenomena situated so close to him seems difficult to defend. This silence, coupled with the abuse, and coupled with the behaviour of a number of enablers, at least to my addled mind, seems only to serve the wrecking of communities, intentionally or not.

In response to the outbreak of online abuse, and a series of incidents at events, a number of free-thought organisations in the US have made steps to implement harassment policies. It’s been no secret that Dawkins’ sentiments oppose these moves for mostly unarticulated reasons. Maybe it’s a case of bonobo ethology romantically adapted to Homo sapiens, or perhaps more likely, it’s that Dawkins objects on the grounds of identity politics.

However, such policies aren’t a reflection on the behaviour of the broader godless constituency – they prescribe courses of action for when things go wrong, as happens from time to time in all human communities. The existence of a harassment policy no more defames a community, than laws against murder condemn a society as being particularly murderous.

Last year I covered the Global Atheist Convention for Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies and Wheels, although at the time I left something out of my coverage; an incident where my eyes were flecked with the spittle (and possibly the mild ale) of an atheist academic, who ranted amongst other things, that he’d always oppose bullies.

Said academic, a self-confessed Dawkins fan, despite his supposed anti-bullying advocacy, has thus far failed to call the harassment of Rebecca Watson, Amy Roth and others for what it is. Yet what he has managed to decry are concerns over a campaign to fund Justin Vacula’s presence at this month’s “Women in Secularism 2”, held by The Centre For Inquiry in Washington D.C..

My spittle-spraying former acquaintance isn’t alone amongst intelligent, academic, Dawkins fans in adopting this double standard. Weirdly, there’s an attitude even amongst a small set of atheist academics, that somehow they’re doing Dawkins a favour. It’s as if they harbour fantasies that fame and book sales will rain down upon them, if only they enable Watson’s harassers.

It’s not like Dawkins hasn’t been pressed for more substantive contributions to this debate, or even with questions about his mere awareness of the existence of the torrents of abuse. I’ve sources who’ve done as much, with little success in the way of obtaining answers, and Dawkins has publicly squelched such lines of inquiry, such as during a Q&A session at the University of Miami in September of 2011.

I was able to discuss these concerns with Dr. R. Elisabeth Cornwell, Executive Director of the US branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. She was aware of the mentioned instances of harassment, expressing displeasure and dismay.

I raised the issue of serious chatter arising out of a polarised climate amongst organisers, that suggested that Dawkins was using his influence to have Rebecca Watson barred from events. Dr. Cornwell assured me this wasn’t the case.

Whichever way one decides to interpret these contrary claims, one thing is indisputable – there‘s a lack of trust within secular circles, born of online harassment during the past few years. This conflict is ostensibly being driven by an unknown number of self-appointed zealots, and their enablers, acting in Dawkins’ honour.

Whatever Dawkins’ intellectual or personal differences with Rebecca Watson et al., it wouldn’t undermine him to explicitly state that he doesn’t welcome the online abuse of his opponents. Dawkins may retort that this is in fact obvious, however this wouldn’t seem to hold for those who need to hear the message the most – a number of his more enthusiastic fans.

~ Bruce

(Photo Source: Marty Stone).