Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

Taking a stand

This is a repost from Michael’s blog. I’m sharing it because it’s very important that people acknowledge and, hopefully, do something about this.

Importantly, those who are unfamiliar with things like Skeptics in the Pub should not take it to mean that it’s a horrible place to go – it’s not! I’ve been a regular for some years now; I have made, and continue to make, lots of amazing friends there, I will always encourage people to go because it’s interesting and fun.

As self-proclaimed progressive types, I feel it’s necessary to address the issues we consider within our communities as well as outside of them. Therefore, there is a responsibility among those of us with a voice to stand up for those without and to address unacceptable behaviour where it occurs – wherever it occurs. Even if the behaviour in question comes from someone with a fair amount of power, who to an extent represents the community (but does not reflect it with said behaviour), who may try to intimidate people into silence. Especially if that is the case.

Please repost, without comments, if you wish to show your support; with the hashtag #gotyourback, if it please you.

I like going to public lectures; I’ve met some great friends and friends who became colleagues there, many of whom I saw last weekend at the post Pod Delusion Live drinks. I’ve spoken at Ignite, done the odd Skeptics in the Pub as part of a double act with Martin Robbins and will be giving a solo presentation about my own hobby horse at Leicester in January, but I don’t feel that my attendance at things like Skeptics is an identity that represents me the way that some of the hardcore members do. So maybe it’s not my place to join in with the current schism, and plenty of very knowledgeable people have already written on this topic, but it seems like recently everyone has been having their say over the latest atheists/skeptics contretemps  so I’m going to demonstrate the levelling power of the internet and stick my oar in.

The issue of the day is sexism/feminism and the debate is splitting down two rough sides: those who find religion immoral or irritating and want to campaign against it with no time devoted to anything else, and those whose objection to religion is part of a generally progressive agenda (frequently called ‘social justice’), and who feel that organised atheism is in danger of replicating the same old problems which religions have perpetuated.

Part of the problem here is that skepticism and feminism are coming from different traditions: feminism has historically been less concerned about evidence and more about consciousness-raising, while skepticism treats evidence as a gold standard and denigrates anecdotes (valued in feminism as ‘lived experience’) as meaningless. Many feminists treat a speaker’s identity as central to their credibility (this is where concepts like ‘mansplaining’ come in) while skepticism is about ignoring the identity of the speaker and focusing solely on the quality of evidence or logic they present. It’s easy to see how these different ways of looking at the world could magnify any argument and turn mild disagreements into longlasting bitter hostility, even before the current level of childishness, name-calling and abuse started.

Now after all that summary, I want to talk about my experience of sexism and harassment. Skeptics, you can dismiss this as an N=1 anecdote, but please at least read it. I have personally witnessed a prominent person getting disturbingly touchy-feely with women and getting away with it, despite the knowledge of nearly everyone who knows him. What’s more I’m willing to bet that you know who I am talking about from just reading the previous sentence. 


I first became aware of this at the beginning of last year, though since I voiced my concerns to others I have been hearing that the behaviour in question has been going a lot longer than that. I was at a Skeptics in the Pub, chatting to some friends and getting a drink at the bar (I am a teetotaller, so you can be assured that none of my account has been blurred by intoxication). I heard a bit of a commotion, turned round and saw this fellow (who had had a few drinks) giving an unwilling woman a hug- not a friendly hug, but one which led crotch first, grabbing her around the hips/bum and leaning in as the she bent right back to escape his advances. It was the sort of thing that could have been a joke but as it went on it became clear that she wasn’t playing. Now she didn’t scream or shout or anything, but she was certainly uncomfortable and it was unpleasant to witness. Right there I did something rather cowardly- I convinced myself that I hadn’t seen anything significant. The fact that I remember it so clearly today tells you that this was self-deception, but it was right on the boundary of being ok. I didn’t know either of these people personally, it might have been play-acting, etc. You make up reasons not to get involved.

It was only when I saw this happen again and again that I realised that there was a pattern to this behaviour- it went so far as to be pushing up against the level at which bystanders would start intervening, but not quite going over it. Over time, as his power and influence grew I noticed that he could go further and further and get away with it. Once someone’s prominence gets to a certain point it becomes very hard to criticise them. You think that if they were a predator someone else would have noticed or complained- surely some of those prominent feminist women (and men) in the media with whom he associates would have said something? I don’t know whether they are intimidated or what, but not one has commented in public.

In private, a number of stories have been circulating for years, many of which are more serious than the incidents I have described. I can’t verify any of these accounts, but the fact that they are readily accepted is telling.

So what to do? If you think this post might be about you, then take responsibility for your behaviour and apologise where necessary. If you see this behaviour, don’t stay silent. 

For all the fact that this has pissed me off a huge amount, I am wary of naming the offending person. He’s someone with a lot of clout, someone who could make life very difficult for anyone who identified him. I feel it’s up to someone whom he has victimised to make that call, but if that’s you and you are reading this then I will absolutely back you up.

I’m posting this with comments closed, I suppose what this has taught me is that it is perfectly possible for a problem like this to exist, not really tolerated but not ever really dealt with either. Let’s knock this on the head before something more serious happens, because experience has taught me that it almost certainly will.

Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

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