Monday, June 25, 2012

Why, Thunderf00t, why??


I was going to do a write up about the CFI conference this weekend, but my friend sent me Thunderf00t's latest video last night and it infuriated me a little bit.

Sigh. I definitely have disagreed quite a bit with Thunderf00t in the past, but his lack of understanding of the harassment-at-conferences issue surprised even me. For one thing, I can't believe that he thinks the current flare up surrounding TAM has anything to do with the elevator incident. In case you haven't been keeping up, there is a lot more to this harassment business than drama whoring by particular members of the freethought community. At the Women in Secularism Conference about a month ago, Jen McCreight made a comment during a panel that there are was a well-known but seldom spoken of problem at atheist and skeptic conferences (particularly TAM) with women being harassed. Apparently, the harassment was being perpetrated by some fairly prominent people in the movement and went well beyond socially awkward coffee date requests. This revelation led to serious discussion about the problem during which several major conferences, including Skepticon, decided to begin implementing no tolerance policies for reported harassment. However, D.J. Grothe of JREF took exactly the opposite course of action. He made several comments that dismissed  the harassment claims of women and even appeared to be blaming them for the reported incidents. This is what led to Rebecca Watson to boycott TAM, etc. etc. Clearly, I am oversimplifying. There is actually a fairly comprehensive timeline of the aforementioned events at Freethought Blogs here. I'm only trying to make a simple point: this is NOT elevatorgate and this problem is NOT trivial. It is certainly NOT analogous to debating the coloring on military vehicles during World War II. Frankly, I am appalled at that analogy.

Thunderf00t has been pushing this "house divided" mantra for quite sometime now, but it is quite a flawed one. Our movement is not homogenous and never will be. Even among the educated white men of which the majority of the community is comprised, there are "divisions" by interest and goals. Some people in the movement care about separation of church and state, some care about skepticism, some care purely about atheism while others are more into charity and humanism. All of these areas are legitimate facets of our movement. We cannot simply pick one mission and expect everyone to follow along. We are not an army, we are a community of individuals and we need to find some way to work together while keeping this fact in mind.

More importantly, we cannot trivialize the fact that a significant portion of the population DOES NOT FEEL SAFE in an environment like that of TAM. This issue draws a lot of attention because it should not be divisive. As people who want to build a strong, healthy community of freethinkers, we should be very quick to identify and fix serious problems such as this. Clearly, some of us are not. If the safety of women (or really anyone) at our events is not a priority in our movement, then I don't think this movement deserves to "stand". I don't care how unified we are in our cause, if the movement is corrupt, none of us should want any part of it. 

Not everyone involved in the freethought/secular movement needs to be an impassioned feminist or social justice activist, but that does not mean we shouldn't care about the presence well-being of minorities in the movement. We don't even have to moralize about equality in order to argue this point, we just need to think strategically as Thunderf00t suggests. If we want to eradicate the harm done by religion in our society, eventually we are going realize that women and minorities are often targeted and deeply effected by religion and religious organizations. We cannot use on these people the same strategies as we do on white men, it simply will not work. If we are trying to reach out to, say, an impoverished black woman, what good will the "problem of evil" argument be if she needs the community and service offered to her by the neighborhood church in order to care for her children? What good will talking about cosmology and evolution do for, say, lower class immigrant with little to no science education? The answer is simple: none. We need members of our movement who understand these experiences so that we might reach out to communities under siege. This kind of strategy is what will carry our movement into the future, not the superficial solidarity that Thunderf00t appears to be calling for.

Do I often think that there is too much senseless drama in this movement? Yes. But the current harassment problem does not fall into that category. It is a discussion that needs to be had before we can carry on as a community.


  1. I agree with a lot of what you've said here, but feel the need to point out a couple of things.

    1) One way in which the elevator incident is very much connected to the current discussion-- it was the impetus for TAM to create a sexual harassment policy, a full year before all of these other conference organizers followed suit.

    2) DJ Grothe did not suggest that women are responsible for their own harassment. He suggested that some of the conversation going on amongst some female skeptics is responsible for frightening women out of attending TAM. He gave a number of examples, but one of them was Rebecca pronouncing the skeptical movement in general "not a safe space" for women. Rebecca has since clarified that she was talking about rhetorical safeness and not physical, and further that she didn't mean that skeptical gathering are any less safe than any other kind, but she didn't say any of that in the USA Today interview. She just said that she thought the movement was a space space, and it isn't.

    I'm not going to defend Grothe for claiming that there have been no reported claims of sexual harassment at TAM when in fact there have. I'm not going to defend him asserting that certain female skeptics had a role in dissuading women from attending TAM this year-- there's no way he could know that, regardless of whatever problems he has otherwise with what they were saying. But I do think it's wrong to say that DJ doesn't care, or that he's trying to punish women for talking about harassment. I think he has been doing damage control, and doing it poorly. It's sad if the experience of TAM is lessened for anyone because of this, and especially sad that at least three female skeptics who were directly involved (Rebecca, Jen, and Ophelia) aren't going because of it.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I completely agree, especially with your point about needing to address the needs of everyone in the community. If "avoiding drama" means that we ignore the concerns of everyone except white men, if unity means we only talk about Old White Guy issues, you're right: this movement doesn't deserve to stand.

  3. I just want to say that it's kind of cool that my old friend Gretchen is commenting on the blog of my new friend Kropotkin (didn't know if I could use her real name on here, since I don't see it anywhere).

  4. Stephanie Zvan tweeted a link to this post, and I had to check it out! Nice to meet you, Kropotkin.

  5. Nice to meet you too! And thank you for your informative comment! I apologize for oversimplifying/not keeping up on everything (it all happens so fast). The point was really trying to make was that this wasn't a trivial issue, but I'll definitely be looking into the more recent developments. ;)

  6. Hey Kropotkin... I'm working on a video responding to this problem. I shall let you know when it is posted. Hope you're doing well!



Please be civil. :)