Sunday Sinner Guest Post: Iamcuriousblue
Bio: By way of background, I am a mycologist, taxonomy geek, naturalist, and microscope tech from the San Francisco Bay Area. After earning an undergraduate degree in botany from University of Washington, and doing graduate work in fungal taxonomy at San Francisco State, I switched gears, professionally moved toward microscopy and biotech rather than tenure-track academic research while at the same time, sharing my knowledge as a community science educator and workshop leader in the Bay Area. I am currently president of the SF Microscopical Society, one of the oldest extant amateur scientific societies in the US. My CV, if anybody is interested, can be found http://www.linkedin.com/in/pgwerner here. Under the nom de guerre “Iamcuriousblue”, I write about various topics related to science and its place in society, rationalism and skepticism,sexuality, sex work and the sex industry, and free speech, and attempt to bring a rational and evidence-based approach to controversies around sexuality, gender, and freedom of expression issues, of which there are many these days.
FREE SPEECH AND FEMINISM
My first reaction upon reading the bulk of articles about Adria Richards and the “Donglegate”/PyCon incident was to seriously wonder if people had lost their minds en mass. The debate in the mainstream media and “feminist blogosphere” seems to be between those who believe Richards to be some sort of victim of sexual harassment that needed to punish those who offended her in the strongest possible way, versus those who take a more measured response and feel that she should have told the guys in question off face to face. But there were very few voices even considering the possibility that perhaps this was a private conversation and that third parties had no place jumping in at all, much less constituting an incident of “harassment”. So much for respect for basic rights like privacy and free speech having any part in discourse these days.
Now it’s no help that Richards’ account of the incident itself is damned vague – it’s not clear at all whether she simply overheard something that offended her, or whether the guys in question were talking loudly and being disruptive, or even heckling. The type of response merited was, of course, very different depending on the kind of behavior at hand. However, there seems to be a common sentiment that any comments that are “sexual” in nature and said within earshot of someone who’s offended, especially a woman, is something that should invite censure and quite possibly punishment. And that to speak negatively of Richard’s actions at all constitutes a form of “harassment” in and of itself.
In fact, this whole incident has been used by the usual suspects as a reason to once again attack those who defend free speech and sexual expression as fools and haters blinded by entitlement and privilege. Even worse, litigators are now trying to jump into the act and making some very creepy statements that stand somewhere between Orwellian and McCarthyist:
“My advice will be: Don’t engage in this kind of behavior because the person sitting next to you or behind you or in front of you has the ability to record on video and audio what you say. If that person is offended, your behavior may not be suitable for your continued employment.”
The lack of proportionality at work here, the view that any man who crosses a woman for any reason in a professional context should be punished, and the calls for outright censorship are all quite simply astounding. But then, we are talking about the Gender Wars here, and reason and nuance walked off the field a long time ago.
I suppose at this point, the “Adria Richards got rape and death threats!” line of argument inevitably rears its head. First, this has no bearing on whether Richards as the receiver of such attacks is actually right about her original complaint or not. Endorsement of Richards’ position based on little more than this is simply an “appeal to martyrdom” fallacy, and I’m amazed at how many self-proclaimed “rationalists” are advancing such an argument. Second, at the risk of being dismissive, I’ll point out that in practically every single case since the high-profile controversies around Rebecca Watson and Anita Sarkeesian, practically every warrior woman who gets into a conflict on the internet drops the “I’m getting rape and death threats” line, almost inevitably without pointing to actual evidence that it’s taking place (how hard is it publish threatening emails, tweets, etc?). Quite often in a blatant attempt to shift the topic of discussion to the reaction rather than the original issue itself. Such reactions to Richards or anybody else are, of course, totally reprehensible, a use of censorship to ostensibly fight censorship, and completely indefensible, but I see little evidence that, insofar as there’s any reality to the report of such threats, that it likely comes from the usual band of 4chan idiots and the like who have nothing to do with any serious critics of Richards or other feminists.
To their credit, there have been a few critical and/or nuanced takes on the PyCon affair from feminist bloggers, including this one by Amanda Blum, and this podcast by Timaree Leigh. Unfortunately, this has not been typical of mainstream media and feminist blog coverage of “Donglegate”, which ran with the “Richards as Joan of Arc” angle.
What’s Really at Stake
We need to look closely at the nature of the kinds of rules that feminist bloggers are coming out of the woodwork to support in the light of this latest controversy. Basically, these involve a subset of anti-harassment policies that involve prohibition of “sexualized” language and imagery in “professional” settings. The boilerplate for such rules coming from passages in the Geek Feminist model policy that is promoted heavily by the feminist blogosphere and the group Ada Initiative:
“Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.” “….exhibitors should not use sexualized images, activities, or other material. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.”
Of course, they claim the rules can be tailored for more sex-positive events, all the while making dire warnings about making any exceptions at all:
“We do not recommended including this addendum unless you have specific real-world examples of content that absolutely require discussion of these topics.”
Now ostensibly, the purpose of such rules is to prevent a frat-house atmosphere at professional meetings that is exclusionary toward women. Those of us who are critical of such rules are portrayed as merely defending the right of men to make juvenile insults toward women, whether through “big dongle” jokes or hitting on women in elevators.
However, another recent incident that has not gotten nearly so much publicity speaks to what’s really at stake here. In February, Violet Blue, a well-know Bay Area sex-positive feminist and tech writer, put together a presentation on harm reduction in the hacker community, including the role of sex, drugs, and risky behavior in the hacker lifestyle. An important topic, to be sure, and one that is topical at some tech conferences, but when it was to be presented at the BSides Conference, Valerie Aurora of the Ada Initiative went into full panic mode. Full story here (and additional interesting dirt in this podcast interview with Violet Blue), but the upshot was that the presentation was canceled. Ada Initiative has issued a number of rationalizations about their role and their actions, but ultimately issued this missive as to why sexual presentations, no matter how feminist and sex-positive, should not be allowed anywhere near any conference that is tech-related. Apparently based on the lame old excuse that any mention of sex might be “triggering” or “offensive” for some, and apparently the most offended minority gets to determine what everyone else can and can’t see and hear.
I’m not sure I even should need to explain all that’s wrong with this approach, but considering the number of “social justice” and mainstream media types promoting these ridiculous policies, I guess I have to. For starters, it harkens back to the very worst of second wave antiporn feminism, which holds women can only stand in relation to sex and sexuality in the role of victims, and to even older conservative notions of women as the moral minders for both sexes. Not to mention what discourse such rules a priori shut down in regard to the subject itself – sex overlaps with technology (and technologists) in a myriad of ways, after all, and to demand a blanket set of rules that proscribe mention of sex across the entire range of technology conferences and forums, and to censor for all to protect the sensibilities of the few, all of this is stifling to far more than a few idiots and bad actors and has tremendous splash damage. Reasonable rules to keep more explicit or challenging discussions in spaces where people who don’t want to be exposed to such can avoid them are one thing. The comstockery practiced by “geek feminism”, Aurora, and the Ada Initiative is quite another. As Violet Blue has pointed out, such censorship is not only not a form of harm reduction, but constitutes a form of harm in itself.
I should also mention that last year, I pointed out in comments on “sex-positive” feminist Greta Christina’s blog just what was wrong with the inclusion of this kind of language in anti-harassment policies. For this, I was hounded mercilessly by the usual Freethoughtblogs gang of flying monkeys, called a “troll”, and booted from the forum by Christina herself. Unfortunately for everyone, however, my predictions have turned out to be right on the money.
Censorship American Style
The issue of free speech inevitably comes up in debates such as this. It’s a complicated issue, however, because this campaign is, by and large, not the action of government entities (except in relation to a broad interpretation of “hostile environment” sexual harassment laws), hence, not classic a priori state censorship. And yet, people face very real silencing and punishment due to the actions of various private groups and individuals that campaign to shut down “sexualized” or “sexist” speech and expression.
An often-expressed sentiment by those supporting campaigns against “offensive” speech and expression is that they’re not the government; therefore, what they’re doing cannot possibly be censorship. And further, that an important part of free speech is the ability to operate one’s own forum or venue where one has editorial control of the content. (The corollary canard is that those of us who protest for “freeze peach”, as they disparage it, really just want unlimited access to other people’s forums, and that there’s nothing more to the issue than that.) The first claim is posited on a very limited view of what constitutes censorship – non-State entities can and do practice censorship all the time. It is patently obvious that if, in a hypothetical example, someone wanted PZ Myers silenced and acted on it by going out and shooting him dead, they’d be committing an act of censorship as well as murder. Of course, one does not need to go nearly so far to censor – poster destruction, denial of service attacks, heckler’s veto, or intimidation tactics against speakers and audience members can accomplish this as well. This is a reason why free speech protection means that the government must protect those lawfully exercising their free speech rights from those who attempt to unlawfully deprive them of them, something a few “social justice” protesters don’t seem to understand.
The second argument, the fact that you don’t owe anyone a platform, is a position I happen to fully support. In fact, I made a video to that effect a few years back. The problem comes when you launch campaigns to tell other people what to do on their forums, and marshal this crusade across as many forums and venues as you can find to make sure those expressions you don’t like can’t find a platform anywhere at all. Albeit, there are tricky grey areas here too, because certainly consumer boycotts can play a legitimate role in influencing opinion. The recent Michelle Shocked incident comes to mind – her homophobic statements caused an immediate and near-total loss of her core audience, and venues for her to perform dried up accordingly. (Albeit, the story I linked to does mention a wholly redundant Change.org petition, whose organizers apparently miss the point that sometimes it’s best to declare victory and move on.) But there are some key differences when venues are threatened with retaliatory action if they don’t drop a particular speaker, or behind-the-scenes campaigns by one or a few people resulting in the loss of venues for those voices who many others might want to hear.
Add to this mix the phenomenon of “hostile environment” law, the overbreadth of which can clearly rise to the level of state censorship. Further add the over-application of this concept by various interest groups, the inherent gun-shy nature of employers when it comes to potential for lawsuits, and the slippery slope of ever-expanding definitions of what constitutes a “workplace”, and you end up with a kind of censorship on your hands that’s every bit as real as state censorship (the kind routinely called for in countries where authoritarian and strong-state sympathies are more mainstream), only in this case, censorship enforced by employers rather than the police powers of the state, and often driven by behind-the-scenes pressure groups like Ada Initiative. In a sense, this is a very American approach to censorship – after all, in the US we privatize things like war, prisons, not to mention access to necessities like healthcare, which is doled out through a system of employee serfdom. So how very in keeping that our society privatizes censorship, and has corporations and nonprofits do the dirty work that the state cannot due to that pesky First Amendment. But what’s really surprising is that self-described liberals and leftists are some of the biggest supporters of this approach. And that’s truly a shame.