Just an idea … not entirely work safe … below the fold.
Imagine that Rebecca Watson, Stef McGraw, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Barbara Drescher, Stephanie Zvan, All the Skepchicks, Me, all the other bloggers, and most of the commmenters on our blogs discussing Rebeccapocalypse all worked for the same big-giant company and this entire discussion happened at work. Imagine what the HR (Human Resources) department would be required to do, would want to do, would want to avoid. Imagine how they would handle the current discussion, and what they might do to avoid future difficulties like this from arising, by following best practices and following the law to the greatest degree possible.
This cluster of questions occurred to me when I noticed that one of the anti-Watson commenters, one of those insisting on using a sexualized misogynist term to refer to Rebecca, also happen to blog (on his own site) that he was looking for a job. It occurred to me that if I was hiring in his area, I might be in the habit of “googling” applicants, and if I did so I’d discover that this applicant was blatant about verbally abusing women, and regardless of any justification he may have, or regardless of my opinion as some manager in an IT company of his opinions, or anything else, I’d view his hiring as a ready-made potential HR nightmare. That made me wonder if googling applicants was acceptable behavior, and how HR departments dealt with people’s outside presentation of self (my understanding is that sometimes it is none of their business, but sometimes it is their business, depending on the job and the nature of the employment). And then it struck me that the most interesting thought experiment was the one I proposed in the above paragraph: Suppose a group of employees for Big-Giant Inc started repeatedly calling one of the other employees by a sexualized sexist icky and insulting term. Even if the recipient of the misogynist epithet “deserved it” for some reason (which is hard to imagine and certainly is not the case here) it certainly would not be acceptable behavior in the workplace.
“But wait a minute,” you say. “The blogosphere is not a workplace! This is an entirely different situation.” And yes, yes, I understand that and I agree with that. Indeed, while with one hand (my right hand) I’ll strike out (metaphorically) at those who choose to senselessly and obnoxiously hurl sexist slings and asshatish arrows at a colleage and friend, I will with the other, somewhat less enthusiastically wielded hand, defend their right to be the dicks they are being, if for no other reason than that tone and word choice have sufficiently subjective sides to them that we are better off erring in favor of 12 year old mentalities now and then. But we need not like what is being said and we need not refrain from calling an adult acting like a 12 year old “immature,” and we need not refrain from referring to any person berating a woman with what is generally considered offensive language as dicks.1
So no, there is no HR perspective to actually apply to the present conversation about whether or not a woman can express a mild level of discomfort and/or annoyance at insignificant but telling male cluelessness which does in fact rest at the mild end of a wide spectrum of behavior that includes rape, dismemberment, slavery, genital mutilation, and stuff. This is a thought experiment, not an admonishment.2 But this comparison — between the skeptics community and a theoretical corporation — could be more than a thought experiment. It could be a launching pad.
There has been discussion in public (see this blog post) and in private (don’t click this) about how the skeptics community can improve itself, and there has been immediate push-back. Like, things like feminism and other “politically correct” philosophies are unrelated to skepticism, which embodies, embraces and emits nothing but pure rational thought. Maybe. Maybe not. But the comparison beetween skepticism as a movement and, well, real life, remains important because skepticism IS a movement with real life goals, there are organizations that are “skeptical” in nature, and as such there is a style, a trope, a reputation, a personality, a culture that exists, like it or not. And they can see you. If one in five prominent skeptics were found to be mass murderers, for instance, we would have to forgive all the none skeptics some skepticism about our legitimacy as a set of institutions linked to a movement. We would have to disband and come back with different labels and try to separate ourselves from the really bad reputation we got when it was discovered that every other speaker at TAM #14 had tortured and killed six or more people, or whatever.
Fortunately we don’t have that problem, but we do have another problem. The Sketpics Movement (and notice I’m not saying “The Atheist Movement,” because I think this may be one way in which the two are different) is one that includes a lot of sexism. If it was revealed that a significant proportion of the executives and workers at Target Corporation were calling women “twats” there would be outrage. If it was revealed that many of the people running The United Way believed that women and men faced the same exact set of risks of sexual harassment or abuse, and therefore sexual abuse was a problem best dealt with via self defense lessons by potential victims, The United Way would lose a lot of its donations.
Well, fellow members of the Skeptics Movement, we’ve got this problem. We could legitimately be seen as an organization (or a loosely knitted together set of organizations and informal groups) with a sexism problem.
Our allies include academics. Academics tend to be “politically enlightened” (though not to the same degree in all fields). If the skeptics movement becomes identified as essentially sexist, academics will not continue to show up at Conventions and other venues to speak about science and stuff.3 This would be a problem.
Our movement presumably operates in part with private donations. Are donors going to flock to skeptical groups or run away from skeptical groups when the output of these groups includes a strong dose of misogynist effluence? Well, I suppose it depends on the donors. And, donors who prefer a misogynist movement would probably provide positive feedback (and by positive I don’t mean good). So this is a problem.
The skeptics movement was not represented by witnesses for science at the famous trial in Dover, and the skeptics movement is never represented by witnesses called to US Congressional hearings on global warming, or health related issues. But many of those individuals are in fact part of the skeptics movement. But you never see this:
“Mr Smith, thank you for coming to Congress, as a Skeptic, to testify about How to Save the World.”
“Certainly Speaker Pelosi, I see it as my duty.”
“Excellent. Now, Mr. Smith, would you please tell us why you should be considered a qualified expert in this area?”
“Well, madam speaker, I have a Masters Degree in Science, and years of research experience, and I am a fellow at Big Giant Institute of Smart Stuff.”
“Is there anything else, Mr. Smith, that we should know about your accomplishments?”
“Yes, madam speaker, I’m a Skeptic and a member in good standing of the JREF, and the CFI, have been awarded a Medal of Skeptosity by the Richard Dawkins Foundation and I have had my photograph taken next to The Amazing Randi and Penn and Teller on several occasions.”
“Ooooh, Mr. Smith, now THAT is impressive! Shall we get on with the testimony?”
No. You don’t see that. And do you know why? Because members of congress have staff who know how to use google. They can see us there. Potential expert witnesses (and there is an informal system in place for identifying experts for various purposes) who highlight their membership in the skeptics movement on their public c.v. invite background checking in that area, and if the skeptics movement becomes known as a collection of socially dysfunctional geeks and nerds stuck in a late 20th century anti-feminist push-back mode and prone to calling women they disagree with by sexualized misogynist terms, they’re not going to get invited to the Large Marble Buildings Where Actual Decisions are Made. Sure, they may be on the speaker’s bureau lists for various skeptical organizations, but what for? To go give talks for other skeptical organizations? Well, I suppose that’s good. But then again, masturbation can be good too.
Putting this a slightly different way: If you think sexism is unimportant or a mere distraction from your mission as a skeptic, and if you think words are just words or you think this whole thing with the patriarchy was fixed by some legislation in the 1960s or by the introduction of “Ms” into our language or if you think the face of feminism is best conceived of as a sex positive furry,4 then you would do well to embrace the idea of a shrinking, not expanding, skeptical movement, because that is what you will have. That is, indeed, what you will cause.
1Yes, it is true. I just acknowledged my own responsibility to defend someone’s right to do something that I think is wrong in calling someone a “twat” — which is, essentially, a variant spelling of “cunt” — while at the same time declaring that if they do, they are being “dicks” — which is a variant spelling of “prick” and either way is not as bad as “cunt” or “twat” as is so often the case when we use the lower forms of our language to bitch at each other about being bastards. If this is beyond you, then you have some catching up to do, because I’m here conversing in Nuance-Land and you are not.
2But it will be taken that way. See comments below, if not now, then eventually.
3Oh, and if when you were reading that paragraph the term “politically correct” came into your mind with a negative connotation, then you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
4And I mean no offense to sex positive furries.