It has been a long but very productive weekend for me. I spent my weekend in discussions with Dr Steve Novella with the hope of finding a way to end at least some of the drama surrounding the T-shirt incident that happened at TAM last year. As many of you know, Dr Harriet Hall wore a shirt that said on the front “I Feel Safe and Welcome at TAM.” On the back of the T-shirt it said, “I’m a skeptic Not a “skepchick” Not a “woman skeptic” Just a skeptic.” When I was confronted with the shirt it was very upsetting to me and I perceived it as a direct attack against me, this blog and another attempt at minimizing the discussions surrounding harassment that were being had at the time. But as the months went past since TAM I had noticed that people dedicated to cyber stalking and harassing me and my peers were continuing to use the shirt and its message to attack us unfairly, but Harriet was not. She responded when it was brought to her attention, but she was not the one constantly bringing it up. I realized at this point that Harriet Hall’s intentions may not have been to attack me or this blog but instead she was indeed trying to send a message that spoke from her own experiences as a feminist.
I decided to do what I could to help end this controversy and to hopefully stop some of misinformation surrounding the incident. I realized that there was a lot of emotion involved, particularly on my side because that shirt has been waved like a flag in an attempt to belittle and drive a wedge between Skepchick and some other members of organized skepticism and of course the harassers displayed it like a prize. As you can imagine, that was upsetting to me. I realized Harriet had been constantly questioned about her actions as well. She may not want to to talk to me. I knew Harriet identified as a feminist and odds were we had more in common than not ideologically and so there was hope to find common ground. Steve assured us we could start a dialog.
As movements grow, internal conflict becomes inevitable. A movement dedicated to reason, thoughtful introspection, and putting logic above emotion, one would think, should be able to deal with such conflict in a constructive way. If the events of the last couple of years have taught us anything, however, it is that we are all still biased and flawed humans, despite our striving for reason.
There is, perhaps, some sign of a light at the end of the tunnel, if you bear with me for a bit more preamble.
I have not been a direct participant in the recent drama over sexism in the movement, but I have had a front row seat. It has struck me throughout that many of the people involved, steeped in critical thinking, firmly believe they are correct and are being reasonable and yet are in such heated conflict with other critical thinkers who also believe they are correct and being reasonable.
There are, it seems to me, three general sources of this conflict. One is sincere and real ideological differences. If you read the recent exchange between Harriet Hall on SBM and Will on Skepchick, and a sample of the comments to each, these differences become apparent. Where exactly to draw the line between free speech and the avoidance of offense is one recurrent theme. Still, this by itself should not be enough to cause such a rift, for our common ground dwarfs these differences.
A second source of conflict are those who have chosen cyberstalking and daily harassment as their chosen mechanism of activism. Rape threats, threats of violence, sexually charged and grossly offensive language have no place in this discussion, but have infiltrated our community. The result has been to raise the level of emotion and defensiveness and pushing all sides toward the more radical extreme. This is, unfortunately, part of the new social media world we have created. We have to find ways to marginalize and ignore these elements, and not confuse them for those who have reasonable and friendly disagreements.
The third source of conflict seems to be avoidable misunderstandings on all sides. This is something we can fix, with a few helpful rules of conduct and more open communication.
Please go to Steve’s Blog to read the remainder of his text.
Now, I present to you in their entirety, two emails. One from Harriet and one from me. I hope with the following we can at least put to rest some of the misinformation and animosity surrounding the TAM T-shirt drama and get back to work on making the world a better place.
From Harriet Hall:
I am so happy you have reached out! I hope we can become friends and put all the unpleasantness behind us.
First, I’d like to say that I admire you and value the work you have done. I bought one of your necklaces years ago (“Quackery is for the birds”) and have worn it frequently and gotten a lot of compliments on it. I particularly appreciate your artistic talents, since I have none of my own – can’t even draw a decent stick figure. I applaud your raising money for scholarships to bring more women to TAM. I appreciate the hard work you have done promoting the participation of women in skepticism.
I also value the Skepchick organization and appreciate what it has accomplished. It has done a lot to raise consciousness and promote women in skepticism. I don’t agree with everything it has done, and I don’t personally choose to join, but I certainly support those who do, and I would not want to do anything to discourage them.
I apologize for putting the word skepchick on my shirt. I honestly did not intend to target the organization, but rather the concept of chick in general. I did not foresee the reaction, and I should have. My social skills have never been very good. If I had it to do over again, I think I would have just said “I’m a skeptic. Not a woman skeptic. Just a skeptic.” I sincerely regret that I inadvertently contributed to inflaming the harassment that was directed at you. I was truly appalled by some of the venomous over-reactions and egregious abuse that you were subjected to online. I felt very sorry for you and what you were forced to endure. There is no excuse for the behavior of your persecutors.
And I have always admired Rebecca. She adds spice to the mix of personalities on SGU and has her own unique style. She is smart, hip, and eloquent. Rebecca had always been a big part of TAM; she had been good to it, and it had been good to her. That’s why I was so distressed by her announcement that she would not be attending TAM. I was also very distressed to hear that her former “immense amount of respect” for me could be totally destroyed from one week to the next by one action of mine that she disapproved of.
Dr. Novella has laid out a list of the things he thinks we agree on:
• gender equality
• judging people by the content of their character, and not by physical or gender attributes
• creating a safe and open environment regardless of sex or gender
• the concept of sex and gender are complex and multifarious, and it’s all within the spectrum of what it is to be human.
• condemnation of sexism in all its forms
• respect and recognition of the dignity of all people regardless of their sex/gender
Do you agree with these? If so, we have a starting point and can build from there.
No two skeptics are exact clones, and there will always be areas of disagreement. We should be able to respect each other even when our opinions differ. We may be able to get our opinions closer together through courteous discussions, or in some cases we may have to agree to disagree.
Even when we pursue different strategies, we can respect each other and tolerate our differences for the good of the whole. Next time we meet, I hope we can shake hands and maybe even share a hug.
Yours in skepticism,
First of all, thank you for taking the time to open a dialog with me and thank you for the apology. It is very kind of you and I appreciate it.
I too would like to apologize. I am sorry for raising my voice to you at TAM in the speakers lounge. I never really gave you a chance to speak. I was, as you could probably tell, very upset at the time. At that point in time things had gotten so bad for me that I went to the speakers lounge to hide and the undercover harassment specialists had to be called in to take a report. When you happened to walk into the room I had already dealt with, among other things, all the stress leading up to the event and at least one full day of being belittled and targeted with nasty comments online via the TAM event hashtag. Various blogs were posting misinformation about me and Rebecca during my time at the event. Some of the people that were saying rude or inaccurate things also included photos from the event so I knew that these people were in attendance. I still, to this day do not know the real identities of many of the people posting. I had witnessed people showing off fake necklaces that they had created, that were made to mock and belittle me. That the necklaces were meant to upset me was not an assumption. The people who created them were open about their intent to make fun of me. Some of these people were posing for photos with you and complimenting your shirt. I assumed at that point, you were aware of the harassment that I and the blog I write for was dealing with prior to TAM, and the nastiness at the event, and that your shirt was also intended to insult me and our blog specifically. I realize now, that was not your intention. I still disagree with your decision to wear the shirt, especially after I told you how upsetting is was, but I certainly respect your right to express your opinion. None of this excuses the fact that I yelled at you. And for that I am sincerely sorry.
Things we agree on.
*judging people by the content of their character, and not by physical or gender attributes
*creating a safe and open environment regardless of sex or gender
*the concept of sex and gender are complex and multifarious, and it’s all within the spectrum of what it is to be human.
*condemnation of sexism in all its forms
*respect and recognition of the dignity of all people regardless of their sex/gender
Yes, we agree on everything on your list. The only thing that we seem to squabble over is the wider definitions of gender and how it can feed into heterosexism and cissexism but this is definitely not my area of expertise and so I am not going to delve any further into the conversation for fear of not getting it right myself. I am still learning about these issues. You have to forgive my partial ignorance, as I only started to identify as a feminist about a year ago, when the harassment became focused on me. It was when the MRAs and certain people from within organized skepticism and atheism started calling me a feminist did I even realize that I might indeed be one. I was a skeptic first, and only recently have I taken on the feminist moniker. I am still educating myself on some of the history and current status of the movement itself.
Speaking of harassment, this is where I think we may be able to find some common ground and work together to make things better in the broader skeptical community.
To give you an idea of the harassment we deal with, every single day we get hate messages via social networks or email. We get rape and death threats on a regular basis. In certain instances law enforcement has been contacted but unless an actual physical crime is committed they are not much help to us beyond taking reports. They contact my customers online and say things like my jewelry is toxic. They photoshop our faces onto pornography or make images of me crying and post them online. There are multiple blogs that write about us daily and try to ruin our reputation so that when you search for our names now, hatred and lies pop up.
And let me emphasize here that disagreeing with me or Rebecca doesn’t mean that you are part of a hate group. That is not what I want to convey here at all and I don’t want to silence legitimate criticism. I am completely aware that many of the people who have sided with you on this issue are genuine, good people and sometimes the criticism is valid and taken to heart. My reaching out to you with the help of Steve should be testament to that fact. My hope here, is to make you aware of the fact that you are also being used unfairly by some as a reason or an excuse to attack us further. I am hoping we can work together to shut down some of these avenues that are taking advantage of both of us by putting the T-shirt issue and any animosity between us, behind us.
We are both feminists and skeptics after-all and while our approach may differ many of our goals can be in harmony. Let’s work together to promote the things we agree on instead of focusing on the negative.
I look forward to hearing back from you and I hope we can work together to makes things better.
A hug would be welcome. :)
In closing, I’d like to say that Harriet has been gracious and warm in our correspondences. She is intelligent and funny and the title of this post references part of a lovely conversation we had after the above emails were exchanged. I am happy to put this controversy behind us and move forward. I encourage everyone else to do the same. I know we do not agree on everything but hopefully, we can now have productive discussions about those disagreements that are not used as ammunition by the people who wish to spread only hatred and lies. Many thanks to Steve for his help with all of this.