My Twitter conversation with Rebecca Watson...and much more

Above are screen captures from Twitter in which I was responding to a conversation dealing with issues relating to Rebecca Watson failing to attend The Amazing Meeting because, in her own words, she was "called out as a problem" by D.J. Grothe [this post isn't about the merits of this evaluation, but I will assume it is true later in the post for sake of argument]. I proposed a hypothetical in my limited tweet to gauge what Rebecca Watson's response would be...and this was indicative of me, on Watson's account, telling her "what's best for [her] mental well-being." In this post, I will discuss the controversy surrounding sexual harassment and the discussion of such in addition to discussion of the above screen capture. I will also pursue and suggest options and attitudes, rather than failing to attend conventions, that atheists/skeptics can pursue. 

If you've been paying attention to my Facebook profile, Twitter feed, or the 'atheist/skeptic blogosphere,' you're likely aware that there have been many problems surrounding sexual harassment at atheist/skeptic conventions and the discussion surrounding said sexual harassment. To make a long story short and to avoid an extensive string of quoting people quoting people quoting people quoting people, D.J. Grothe -- the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation -- typed the following,
…this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed…I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.
Following this comment and various others, Rebecca Watson -- shown above in the Twitter screen capture -- wrote a lengthy post titled "Why I won't be at TAM this year" in which she wrote, among other things (read the post itself for full details),
So it’s odd for me to be announcing that I will not attend TAM this year, because I do not feel welcomed or safe and I disagree strongly with the recent actions of the JREF president, DJ Grothe.
DJ was blaming women skeptics for creating an unwelcoming environment. I found that claim astonishing, since I was only aware of women speaking frankly about their own experiences and their own feelings. I couldn’t imagine that DJ would be literally blaming the victim for speaking out.  
Watson continued,
This is quite obviously not a safe space for me or for other women who want to be free of the gendered slurs and sexual threats and come-ons we experience in our day-to-day lives. But apparently, DJ thinks I am lying about that, since apparently my feeling that the freethought community is not a safe space is “misinformation.” I should apparently put on a smile and pretend it doesn’t happen, because by reporting on my treatment, I am creating “a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe.” 
DJ says I am the one doing that. Me, who has never discouraged people from attending TAM and in fact has given thousands of dollars to the JREF in order to send more and more women to the event. Me, who has never said that TAM is a dangerous place for women. I’m the problem.
Let's grant, for sake of argument, that Rebecca Watson's evaluation of the situation (that she is indeed being blamed by Grothe, atheist/skeptic conventions are not safe spaces, and that her interpretation of Grothe's comments is accurate) is a flawless interpretation. Should this, though, be a good reason for Rebecca Watson (and other female or even male skeptics) to fail to attend atheist/skeptic conventions? Do better options exist?

It should be quite uncontroversial to assert that there is disagreement -- ranging from minor to severe -- amongst individuals in the atheist/skeptic community. Some might not like person a's 'friendly approach' and believe that person z's focus on church/state issues is misplaced. Some, for example, might not like the tactics or comments of organization b...or perhaps might not be a fan of organization b's staff. Person c may similarly repulse some people for various reasons. Perhaps some people might not like the comments of person d. Maybe it's the case that people view atheist/skeptic speakers as 'too militant' and claim that their strategies are counter-intuitive. Maybe it's the case that people view atheist/skeptic speakers as 'too accomodating' and claim that their strategies are counter-intuitive. Whatever. One can't be happy with all of the organizers, leaders, representatives, etc. in the atheist/skeptic movement and might even have serious disagreements with some particular individuals or organizations ranging from what one construes as personal attacks to minor disagreements about focus...so should an effective response, then, be to pull support from a convention in whatever manner one elects?

In an attempt to see if Rebecca Watson's logic -- not attending a convention because, as her chief complaint seems to be, she has an extreme disagreement with one of the convention's organizers -- should be applied for everyone or anyone in cases in which there is an extreme disagreement or when one has been told -- as I noted -- 'really shitty things,' I sent a Tweet to her with a hypothetical statement reading, "I've been told really shitty things from rep's of an atheist organization. Should I also not go to those cons?" Her reply was, "Like seriously, what gave you the right to tell me what's best for my mental well-being? Fuck that." 

Admittedly, I didn't have high hopes of a genuine conversation [one in which both persons are open to discussion, receptive of criticism, willing to 'step back' and self-reflect when faced with objections] coming from Watson because my attempt in the past to express skepticism with her reasoning* did not yield a genuine conversation on her behalf, but rather led to her distorting what I was saying, levying personal attacks, and similarly employing 'mind reading tactics.' I felt it, though, necessary to express skepticism in this case because the situation has gotten really out of hand from many 'sides.'

It should be quite apparent that Watson didn't answer my question posed in the above tweet and distorted what I was saying. It also seems to be the case that she was employing 'mind reading tactics' in which she was attempting to gauge my intentions (on her account, my telling her what is best for her mental well-being) when all she had to work with was a simple tweet with less than 200 characters (and, to be fair, I've commented on the issue before, but in no instance was I 'telling her what is best for her mental well-being'). I  failed to receive a 'yes,' 'no,' or some commentary that seemed to address my question, but rather was met with Watson implying that I am telling her how to feel [and strangely questioning my 'right' (whatever that means) to express skepticism. I have no idea what this means because I obviously don't lack the ability to type something and I don't find any good reason to suggest that my expressing skepticism is an improper invasive thing to do especially considering it seems to be the case that Watson is publicly claiming Grothe (although by using sarcasm) is suggesting she 'put on a smile' and not talk about sexual harassment].

Watson, by the available evidence (although admittedly limited although perhaps sufficient enough to draw conclusions) seemed to have a previously-held bias when encountering criticism of those who question her; instead of being open to the possibility of people engaging on an honest inquiry, she assumed that those who disagree with her or express skepticism have malicious intentions in which they are expressing what is best for her mental well-being (and know what is best for others) or -- more simply -- telling her how to feel. Watson apparently, at least in this case, is assuming that disagreement people express is an attack and a suggestion that other people know what is best for her. The abilities to self-reflect and challenge one's ideas quite unfortunately seem to be lacking in this situation...and that's quite interesting because I have written at length about how people I have encountered or have encountered my work -- often closed-minded theists -- construe disagreement as disrespect and an attack on one's character while jumping to wild conclusions about the intentions of others.

Criticism of Watson's ideas, it seems, at least in this situation, is out-of-bounds, impermissible, and automatically means that people who are raising objections are telling others how to feel. Of course it can't possibly be the case that someone sees a flaw with her reasoning, poses a reductio ad absurdum to help her perhaps discover this flaw, wants to express some skepticism to better understand her position, or perhaps wants to pose a defeater to a certain course of action (I can use sarcasm, too). 


Simply put, if the correct or advisable course of action (such that Watson is taking) -- when following extreme disagreement with someone involved with a convention -- is to stay home and refuse to attend [and many women would be justified in responding similarly], convention attendance would go sharply down, less women would be represented at atheist/skeptic conventions (isn't this the goal?), less new convention attendees come out, less community building is possible, etc. Other options -- and better options -- exist.

Amidst the entire discussion about sexual harassment at conventions, one should assume (and quite uncontroversially so), that sexual harassment happens at conventions (much of it, I would wager, being unreported) and that certain 'creepers' exist. Said 'creepers' exist in the skeptic community and -- no matter how much education -- people are going to behave really poorly. It's obviously the case that some people -- whether the situation is a gaming, atheist, skeptic, or science convention -- are going to behave poorly/that incidents are going to happen and, if they don't happen, there's a chance that they will - this is an assumed danger for mostly all people. A better response, then, it seems -- or at least some ideas I and others have -- should be proactive behavior such as staying in groups with friends, being vigilant and unafraid to confront harassers, remove yourself from hostile or unwelcome situations, notifying security/convention organizers of problems, and pressing (and rightfully so) convention organizers to have firm policies and make sure to keep records of complaints.

I additionally wonder...if Watson's prime reason for not attending TAM is, as it seems to be, extreme disagreement with someone who plays a major role in a convention, would people be similarly justified in failing to attend [and perhaps even encouraging others to not attend] conventions in which Watson has a major role? Should people sit home and fail to attend conventions in which Watson is a part of because they have extreme disagreements with her? It's obviously the case that I have extreme disagreements with Watson (on this issue and many more), but should my course of action -- in light of the extreme disagreement -- be to have nothing to do with conventions in which she plays a major role? I think not. If you similarly think not, why should Watson's reasoning be justified/an appropriate reaction?

To perhaps 'test' this, I asked Watson if I should stay home and refuse to attend conventions because I disliked the comments of, as I proposed, Lawrence Krauss (and this is the case because of his outright dismissal of philosophy and philosophers at American Atheists' 2012 convention although he later clarified following a wide deal of criticism). Her response, not addressing my question, was "Yah, remember that time you gave Lawrence Krauss $10k & then he called you out as a problem? That was rough." Perhaps Watson's disagreement with Grothe is made more severe in light of, as she says, a donation of $10,000 dollars [and in previous instances a high level of support for Grothe's initiatives]? This is interesting to consider. I responded writing, "Would the situation really be so much different if you hadn't contributed 10k? Wouldn't you similarly be upset." To that, I got no response...and ended up -- as it seems -- being blocked by Watson on Twitter.

As sexual harassment continues to be a problem and individuals continue to disagree with leaders in the skeptic/atheist movement, the response of failing to attend conventions (and seemingly discouraging others to attend) doesn't appear to be a proper response. Interestingly enough, failing to attend conventions when one was previously likely to attend seems to -- as was initially the point of contention -- make the problem of women being lowly represented at conventions worse - and it's not because Watson spoke up about harassment, but rather how she handled the situation when other what seem to be more viable and effective options/responses exist for her to deal with conflict, harassment, and problems in the atheist/skeptic community (especially considering she has such big platform/audience). Although I don't have the financial means to do so at the moment (and because of some other considerations preventing my participation), I would love to attend TAM ... and also participate in other conventions with people in the skeptic/atheist community although I might have severe disagreements with people who play major roles in them. I can perhaps tolerate others' behavior, perhaps be angry and ignore, and/or simply realize that there exist people with whom I have severe disagreements while also understanding said people reach particular people and do a tremendous amount of good (even considering some instances of bad) for society. 

This wouldn't be the first time in which Rebecca Watson failed to engage in a fair discussion. In the past -- when I expressed skepticism about a claim made by Rebecca Watson and talked about by many others in the atheist/skeptic community -- it seemed that my efforts were a waste of time; I gained no insight, commenters who responded to me didn't really seem to answer what I was saying, and Rebecca Watson didn't seem to be willing to have a thoughtful discussion that was a charitable reading of my comments. ...and in this case, we weren't limited to short tweets...and there was an extended conversation. When I voiced skepticism about the general assertion that a poll with five men is indicative of a sexist pollmaker or otherwise an instance of someone 'forgetting about women,' I was told that I have a 'pretty sad problem' and that 'I couldn't think of a single woman.' Later clarification of the 'I couldn't think of a single woman' phrase were followed with 'I decided not to,' that I 'didn't know women were half of the population,' and what seemed to be threats of banning because of my "evasion and general thick-headedness." Following me stating lack of a woman in a poll of five persons doesn't seem to be a huge problem because of the small size of the poll, Watson claimed that I believe there should be 25 men on a poll before one woman was included.