Surly Amy: Conferences should ban 'fake jewelry'

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[The original "This is what a feminist looks like" Surly-Ramics image has been removed from this post due to a DMCA complaint. I have replaced that image with the one you now see above. This post is also available on Youtube and Scribd.]


Skepchick writer and Surly-Ramics creator 'Surly Amy' has recently argued that conferences should ban 'fake jewelry' after recounting her recent TAM experience in which she spoke of a group of "very vocal angry troll-like people that did some really awful things" to her. I argue that placing restrictions on freedom of expression and speech would be unreasonable and disastrous. The mere suggestion of banning 'fake jewelry,' I argue, should disqualify 'Surly Amy' from being a participant in discussion concerning anti-harassment policies.

'Surly Amy' -- blogger for the Skepchick network and creator of 'Surly-ramics' jewelry -- has recently appeared on the August 5, 2012 episode of Amanda Marcotte's "RH Reality Check" podcast to discuss feminism within the atheist movement. Of particular interest in this short podcast were Amy's comments on her experience at The Amazing Meeting and thoughts on anti-harassment policies at atheist/skeptic conferences. During the discussion, Amy had said that she -- and presumably other feminists in the atheist community because she uses the word 'we' -- wants conferences to have rules restricting particular types of jewelry people wear. For instance, Amy says atheist/skeptic conferences should have policies which restrict "fake jewelry" which is "intentionally offending."

Near the 11:53 mark of the before-mentioned podcast, commenting on her experience at The Amazing Meeting, 'Surly Amy' said,
There was this group of, again, very vocal angry troll-like people that did some really awful things to me in real life - that sort of thing that you usually only see online I was actually face to face with. I had people wearing t-shirts saying that they were not a skepchick, people making fake jewelry that I make that said things on it like 'you should be embarrassed.' There's this really crazy undercurrent of othering that I had never experienced before and it was really upsetting and I ended up leaving the event a day early.
It seems that 'Surly Amy' considers people wearing t-shirts she doesn't like and jewelry saying 'you should be embarrassed' to be indicative of "very vocal angry troll-like people" and people acting "really awful" (she doesn't take time to mention anything else which warranted these labels and conclusions). This also apparently constitutes a "really crazy undercurrent of othering" which, at least in part, caused her to leave the conference a day early.

Further commenting, near the 14:22 mark in the podcast, Amy mentions what she would like to see anti-harassment policies at conferences to address. She explains,
We're not asking for anything crazy - just basic rules so that we can say the sort of thing like making fake jewelry and intentionally offending people is not okay nor is grabbing someone's ass. That's it, that's all we're asking for.
What, anyway, is 'fake jewelry?' Since when did 'Surly Amy' have an exclusive hold on the market of ceramic jewelry? 'Fake jewelry,' it seems, is ceramic jewelry either meant to satirize Surly Amy's jewelry or ceramic jewelry which is not made by 'Surly Amy.' One example of this 'fake jewelry,' according to a JREF forum poster is as follows: "The fake Surlys I saw looked like a man and woman standing on either side of an elevator with a big red slash through the whole picture." Anyway, returning to the issues...

It is reasonable for one to not only claim offense to 'fake jewelry,' but also to ask conferences to have policies which restrict what jewelry people wear...because someone like 'Surly Amy' happens to claim offense?

'Surly Amy' -- and apparently others in the atheist/skeptic community -- seemed to, for whatever reasons, have moved away from the common response of "Too bad, that's your problem" when someone claims offense. This is, at least from my experience, the reaction that many atheists have when religious people claim offense. For whatever reason, 'Surly Amy' and others seemed to have compartmentalized this attitude (assuming that she and others would respond to religious believers who happen to claim offense to atheists/skeptics arguing against religious claims or otherwise being blasphemous) and afforded some sort of special rules for their own particular sensitivities. Note that 'Surly Amy' does not only condemn that which she finds offensive, but she also wants to squelch others' freedom of speech at conferences by encouraging conferences to adopt policies restricting messages displayed on jewelry.

Banning others' speech because one happens to claim offense or dislike speech seems to be 'the coward's way out' that is often condemned by the atheist/skeptic community. What ever happened to "I might not like what you have to say, but I will defend your right to say it?" What ever happened to toleration and an understanding that other people should be afforded with the rights to express viewpoints which some might not  like? What sort of 'freethought response' is banning speech and insisting that conferences adopt policies which restrict messages on jewelry?

What sort of consequences might follow if "I'm offended" is good reason for conferences to adopt policies restricting jewelry people wear? Should 'Teach the Controversy' t-shirts which mock creationists be barred from conferences should a creationist happen to attend a skeptic conference and complain? Should critical examination of Islam and pictures of Mohammad be barred from atheist conferences should a liberal Muslim happen to attend and complain? Should Tim Minchin's "The Pope Song" be barred because people happen to take offense to vulgar language?

Skeptical readers may think that all of these consequences would not follow because these cases are 'different' or otherwise aren't attacking persons. This reasoning, though, would ignore the fact that offense is a largely (or perhaps totally) subjective term. After all, many are lauding Matt Dillahunty's recent "speaking out against hate directed at women" post which says,
When you hear a complaint that someone has raised, you might think that they're expressing an irrational, emotional, over-reaction to the situation. You might even be correct - but it doesn't matter, and here's why: You don't get to decide what someone else finds offensive. You don't get to decide what someone else finds uncomfortable, unwelcoming, disconcerting, stressful, harassing, troubling or painful. You aren't the world: everyone isn't exactly like you. We're trying to build a safe and welcoming community. We're trying to sponsor safe and welcoming events. [...] We need to make sure that people who express their concerns are treated with respect and compassion and that we make reasonable efforts to either alleviate their concerns or clarify why we can't or won't. 
Apparently, persons are -- according to Dillahunty's accounting -- out of line to argue that people are acting irrationally when they happen to "express a concern that something is making them feel unwelcome." Dillahunty, though, at least says that concerns can't or won't be addressed. The idea that people may not rightly challenge others who are behaving irrationally is poisonous and ought to be challenged by skeptics. The mere claiming of offense or taking an attitude of 'I believe it, so it is so' is no justification for one to place restrictions on others' behaviors.

If 'Surly Amy' and others had their way -- according to what 'Surly Amy' said in this podcast and logical conclusions which seem to follow -- conferences would ban others' freedom of expression and speech on grounds of a person claiming offense. I hope this day never comes, but it might just be on its way if people continue to consider 'Surly Amy' as a valid participant in the discussion concerning anti-harassment policies at conferences. Her wanting to restrict which jewelry people wear at conferences, though, should hopefully disqualify her from this discussion. Is this the sort of feminism that is worth wanting? 'Surly Amy,' after all, is not some 'rogue voice' or 'extremist' who has little clout; she is a well-respected and listened to voice within in the feminist atheist community.

Are you, reader, in agreement with 'Surly Amy?'
Should jewelry which leads people to claim offense be banned from conferences?

Related posts:
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In which I am ridiculed by PZ Myers
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'Surly Amy,' Skepticism, and Satire
Stephanie Zvan doesn't understand cyberstalking
My Twitter conversation with Rebecca Watson...and much more