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Posted by on Apr 8, 2013 in Culture, Debate, Law, Politics | 27 comments

I support the CFI conduct policy

There has been much discussion in the blogosphere about conduct policies – including misrepresentations of my own position. So let me just go clearly on the record to say that I support the CFI policy on hostile conduct and harassment when taken together with Ron Lindsay’s explanation of the rationale behind it, and how it will be interpreted/applied.

With such policies, the devil is not only in the detailed wording but also in the (stated or unstated) intentions as to how the policy will be read – e.g. will the stated forms of prohibited behaviour be read broadly (so as to prohibit large categories of behaviour) or will they be read down to an extent, so that the full literal meaning is not invoked and the exclusions are narrower? Lindsay’s statement makes clear that there will be some reading down. In particular, the phrase “unwelcome sexual attention” will not be read sweepingly so as to include all possible behaviour that might fall within the literal words.

Phrases such as “unwelcome sexual attention” or “inappropriate sexual conduct” are often used as euphemisms for something much nastier, such as sexual blackmail or assault. In some cases, the more anodyne phrasing is used to let offenders off the hook in public: it is a refusal to state the full nastiness of what really happened. I think we should be more willing, in many of these cases, to state the ugly but important truth, rather than to use such euphemisms.

However, these euphemisms are also out of place in harassment codes, since their literal effect would be to ban many kinds of benign interaction, including interactions between spouses or lovers (if, for example, one pays sexual attention to the other who turns out “not to be in the mood right now, honey”). I’d like to see less use of these euphemisms all round. They only create confusion. In particular, I despise the weasel word “inappropriate” in this context.

However, Lindsay makes quite clear that what is meant is not, for example, an ill-judged (hence “unwelcome”) attempt at flirting or to set up a romantic date. Rather, it is obnoxious or abusive sexual conduct. Lindsay writes:

As already indicated, our aim is to apply the policy in a way that is objectively reasonable using contemporary standards. It is not our intention to prohibit flirting or a polite expression of interest in another person. For example, without more, the question, “Would you be interested in having a drink later?” would not be considered harassment.

But one-time expressions of interest/invitations to an encounter could be inappropriate [ugh!] under the policy, which is why inserting the word “repeated” in the policy would be unwise. To take a crude example (those with delicate sensibilities can skip ahead), asking someone “Wouldn’t you like to bury your head in my crotch and suck my dick?” could constitute harassment, even if it is said only once and accompanied by no other action.

This is fair enough. The explanatory post also makes clear that the behaviour must be “both objectively abusive and subjectively abusive; in other words, it must be conduct ‘that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive and one that the victim did in fact perceive to be so'” (my emphasis). I think this is the correct approach, legally and in terms of ordinary good sense, even though not spelled out clearly in the policy itself. So the phrase “unwelcome sexual attention” will be read down to mean “unwelcome and objectively abusive sexual attention”. On that basis, I don’t think this code is objectionable in any way, and it may do some good.

For the record, I have never been against codes of conduct for conventions. I have been against poorly drafted or overreaching codes of conduct. Once Lindsay’s explanation of the purpose and intention is taken into account, I don’t consider the CFI conduct policy to be overreaching. Furthermore, weaknesses in the drafting are pretty much cured by the overall stipulation that the conduct must be not only subjectively unwanted but also objectively (in the sense used by lawyers) abusive. Better still, Lindsay’s post deals with many of the problems that can arise with such policies – to its credit, the CFI rejected all of the policy elements that most worry me about such policies. For example, it rejected blacklists, dress codes, restrictions on sexual language and imagery, and restrictions on who can have sex with whom. None of these highly draconian and intrusive proposals – some of which were being advocated at the time, and some of which have actually appeared in certain other policies! – can be found in the CFI policy.

Accordingly, I support the CFI policy (in its stated interpretation and application), and it will cause me no misgivings about appearing at CFI conventions.

I know that some of my readers have stronger reservations about such policies than I do. If you do, let’s have a civil discussion about it. I think that many people have unnecessary concerns about conduct policies in general (as opposed to poor drafting or overreaching attempts to control our behaviour). Perhaps I can allay at least some of them.