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Posted on Apr 16, 2013 in arguments, blogosphere, gender, responding to arguments | 56 comments

Response to Greta Christina’s views on conference policies

Magic, intent! (

Greta Christina of the Freethought Blogs network has authored a response to some alleged criticisms of atheist/skeptic conference policies. She notes that persons ought not seriously consider criticisms “steeped in the contemptuous trivialization and dismissal of the very real problem of sexual and other harassment at conferences.” One might wonder what evidence supports this “very real problem,” which, on Christina’s view, likely provides the justification for conference policies she supports. Christina unwittingly provides excellent arguments against particular conference policies which I will explore in this piece.

Christina responds to a formulation of the following argument: (1) If there is a small problem with one part of a generally good rule or law or policy, the entire rule or law or policy should be discarded; (2) There is a small problem with one part of a generally good rule or law or policy; (3) The entire rule or law or policy should be discarded.

As an opponent of conference policies at atheist/skeptic conferences — particularly lengthy poorly-worded policies – I don’t think Christina addresses the strongest arguments against policies. Regardless, the elephants in the room — some of the most salient objections to particular conference policies — are quite clear: the conference policies are poorly worded, useless, not enforced as written, and born out of a false narrative of a, as Christina notes, “very real problem” of sexual harassment at conferences. Christina recognizes that people argue against policies because policies are poorly written, but she fails to adequately address these objections. Rather, she casually dismisses these concerns because, as she asserts, there is “obvious intent” beyond the conference policies and policies could be modified.

What, I wonder, is this “obvious intent” that Christina is privy to…and why would it matter? Proponents of conference policies — particularly lengthy conference policies implemented under the false narrative of an alleged “very real problem” of sexual harassment at conferences (inquiring minds, remember, still wait for evidence of this happening at conferences) — were kicking and screaming – arguing that these policies were necessary for women to feel safe at conferences and, without these policies, on some accounts (and even with these policies), the atheist/skeptic community is a dangerous, hostile, and unwelcoming place for women.

If these conference policies were so important, one would think that organizations and individuals touting these policies would take this “very real problem” seriously and take some time to craft something that is apparent to all, practical, enforced, and is not ‘excused away’ upon failure by the ad-hoc defense of “obvious intent.” Should not policies clearly spell what is expected and – regardless of what it written – be enforced as written? If organizations release policies, they should be followed. If the “obvious intent” is really so obvious, the words-as-written should match the intent. Since Christina distinguishes obvious intent from what is written — noting a contrast — it is very clear that there exists a disconnect.

Policies written and endorsed by atheist/skeptic organizations – particularly American Atheists spearheaded by David Silverman – are not enforced by organizers who, time and time again, turn a blind eye to violations and do not enforce what they had so cherished and promised to enforce. Rules-as-written do not matter, as we see from Christina’s defense of conference policies, and alleged “obvious intent” is what matters.

If outright violations of conference policies lead to tolerance from organizers with “obvious intent” which apparently trumps the rules-as-written, what is the point of rules-as-written or – of course – [lengthy] conference policies at all? Why not just have a policy stating something simple – that illegal behavior will not be tolerated – and leave everything up to organizers, as apparently is the case now on Christina’s account and was the case, before these extensive policies were implemented? The facts seem quite clear: exhaustive conference policies – inspired by Geek Feminism Wiki — are obvious attempts to pander to a particularly vocal dogmatic feminist subsection of the atheist community, and not just that of the organization Secular Woman, perpetuating a false victim narrative…

Greta Christina inadvertently makes a great case against conference policies when implying that the intent of the organizers trumps rules-as-written. Extensive conference policies, then, are useless and should be eliminated or – if for whatever reason they are necessary – shortened to a statement stipulating that organizers will eject conference participants at reasonable discretion [more on this in a possible future post: ‘The anatomy of a successful conference policy’]. Conference policies should not be eliminated because there are minor problems, but rather should be eliminated or shortened because intent of organizers trumps rules-as-written, as Christina notes, and because they are built upon a false narrative of an unevidenced “very real problem.”