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Do We Need to Blacklist Speakers?

Posted by Ethan Clow on May 24, 2012

There were a couple of conferences this past weekend, the Imagine No Religion 2 conference in Kamloops and the Women in Secularism Conference in Washington DC. Unfortunately I couldn’t go to either of them but I’ve enjoyed hearing about them from the people who could attend.

However I heard something rather disturbing regarding the Women in Secularism conference.

During one of the talks, Jen McCreight mentioned that she was warned about male speakers at conventions behaving badly:

“I accidentally set off a lot of discussion with something I said during a panel. I say “accidentally” because I wasn’t planning on talking about this specific point, nor did I think it would result in such a reaction. I remarked that when I was about to attend my first major atheist/skeptical conference, multiple people independently sent me unsolicited advice about what male speakers to avoid at the con. The same speakers were mentioned by different individuals, with warnings that they often make unwanted and aggressive sexual advances toward young pretty women and that I should not be alone with them.”

This is not the kind of thing that fills me with hope for the skeptical freethought movement. The idea that there are well known skeptical/humanists speakers behaving in a misogynistic and/or inappropriate fashion with women speakers is deeply upsetting.

Obviously we skeptics wish to hold ourselves to a level of accountability and behaviour that sets us apart from the groups out there that we typically criticize (the Catholic Church, cults, Scientology etc)

It’s also disturbing because we are also supposed to be representing the values of humanism – a moral and ethical system based on enlightened views of society. Surely this includes treating women with respect and not harassing them?

Predictably this conversation almost immediately derailed as people started accusing Jen of having some sinister agenda or in the case of one blogger, calling her ugly.

The question is how to move forward knowing this is a problem. Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds wrote a piece about what conference organizers need to do to ensure that their conventions are free of harassment. Already various groups are in the process of creating public policies on anti-harassment.

Another floating meme out there is a “blacklist” of speakers who consistently behave badly. First, does one exist and second, why hasn’t it been made public. The answer appears to be “no” and “because it doesn’t exist.” There’s no list out there that gets circulated to all the women in the free thought community about who’s a jerk. However there is an informal level of communication in which people talk behind-the-scenes about shared experiences.

The problem with that is that its behind-the-scenes and while useful to speakers, leaves the attendee’s out of the loop when it comes to their safety and enjoyment of conferences. So why not go public with this information? Surely if it’s a big deal these women should say exactly who is causing problems?

Umm, Elevator-gate anyone?

The last time a woman spoke up about something that made her uncomfortable at a conference she got rape and death threats.

Another reason why no public blacklist exists is because these behind-the-scenes talkings are informal. It would be hard for a new speaker to know what is a rumor and what actually happened. Further, they lack any hard evidence, no video of harassment, no audio, no police reports or anything that would prevent someone from being sued for liable or having their career destroyed by someone more powerful than them.

Basically one of the most effective solutions to this will be conference organizers having a firm grasp on writing a anti-harassment policy and circulating it to their speakers. The speakers need to know, going in to the conference, what will be tolerated and won’t be tolerated. They need to know that and they also need to know that breaching those terms might also put future speaking options in jeopardy because conference organizers are going to pass on information about who plays nice and who doesn’t to other groups and organizers.

Where I’m struggling is whether conferences should go public with what they learn. My concern is that say a conference wants to bring in speaker X, who is a big name will draw in lots of people. This person is very popular and appears on TV and writes books and everyone loves him. But, he also has a reputation of being a jerk to female speakers. The conference organizers can chose not to invite this person but what if the attendees start saying “why aren’t you inviting X?” What if that adversely impacts their ability to get large crowds to their conference?

Suppose some of the smaller conferences (the ones that get about 200 – 500 people out) adopt these policies, but one or more big conferences (the ones that get about 1000 – 3000 people out) don’t? My concern is that unless the attendees know why speaker X isn’t getting invited, they may just chalk it up to the idea that a particular conference can’t afford him or that maybe the conference organizers don’t like him or something.

It could be premature to start worrying about this. And could also be largely irrelevant, after all, what are our priorities here? Getting lots of people to conferences or making our conferences more safe and appealing to everyone?

5 Responses to “Do We Need to Blacklist Speakers?”

  1. Carl Baker said

    In answer to your questions at the end, my position is that our priorities should be to do the right thing and to build a community that doesn’t tolerate douchebaggery. If we do that, I think we’ll end up “getting lots of people to conferences”. And if we don’t, at least the people who do show up will be decent to hang out with.

  2. No! Blacklisting should be a last resort, not the first. Unless of course there a physical assault. Setting boundaries is important, there are so many factors that come into play. There are personality types, there are past issues of abuse to where someone may feel uncomfortable, and misconstrued the intent of the other person. A better solution would be having meditation on site to asses the situation as it occurs. It will not be easy. One of the worst things within our society is the fact that when a woman is sexually harassed she is put on trail herself. There is a huge difference between wanted attention and unwanted attention. There are some people I am comfortable being a bit silly and flirtatious with, it’s about who you feel safe with. I had someone staring me up and down and did not look at me as he spoke to me. I decided to excuse myself from his presence and left it at that and stayed away from him the rest of the time. This is an issue we have to deal with regardless of where we are. Having the anti-harassment policy in place is a great start it will clearly state what is and is not acceptable. At the same time, it does not mean that people should be walking on pins and needles. We all have a sense of responsibility to ourselves a. s I said I deal with the situation when it happens and refuse to allow someone else to take away my personal power or have it effect me in negative way. Once the line has been crossed with threats of bodily harm then blacklisting is not enough and police need to become involved.

    • ^mediation

    • Ethan Clow said

      I think the anti-harassment policies will help going forward, but what about those speakers out there who already have a history of creepy behavior? Not a public history, obviously, but clearly there was enough past instances that some speakers felt the need to warn others to avoid them.

      • I wish there was a way to turn back the clock, there is not though. I had a “creep” stare at me below my belly button as he spoke to me this past weekend. I excused myself and he did not bother me again. Had he kept trying to be in my presence and bothered me, I would have said something. The problem here has been the secrecy surrounding it. If there are women that are willing to talk, maybe what needs to be done is to ask them to step forward to the event promoters and it be quietly documented. Then speak to the speaker/s of individuals and discuss it with them.mediation of the past events is the only way that will put the past to rest. We can not pretend there is no elephant in the room when there clearly is one, and the same time we can not damn people by hearsay alone.

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