A bit of background, for those not involved in the secular community:
For a very long time now, many women attending atheist/skeptic/freethought conferences and conventions have been talking about the sexual harassment and abuse they receive at these cons. Most of this talk has been to other women, in private, to communicate about who were the harassers and who weren’t. In the past few months, multiple women have started coming forward publicly to say that they were victims of harassment and abuse. These actions have succeeded in making most cons implement anti-harassment policies to try and curb the levels of harassment and abuse.
These actions have inspired a huge backlash from people who are apparently either unable or unwilling to understand that harassment is bad. You’d think that the statement, “Harassment is bad, maybe we should try and stop it” would be entirely uncontroversial, and yet there are entire swaths of the community who viciously oppose it, often resorting to threats of violence and harassment of their own.
Until about a week ago, all accusations of harassment were made without identifying the harasser, for various reasons. Then, Karen Stollznow wrote a post talking about her experiences of sexual harassment, which I strongly urge all of you to read, if you haven’t already. While she didn’t explicitly name her harasser, she provided enough details for many other people to identify him as Ben Radford.
The internet then proceeded to explode. Several other people came forward naming harassers, and, predictably, the same people who don’t understand why harassment is bad are violently opposed to the idea of talking about it. Plenty of other bloggers have addressed various aspects of this backlash, but I want to focus on my experiences with a few of these people on Twitter.
A common complaint that I’ve encountered (and which Greta Christina has also addressed) is that the victims should make all accusations in a court of law. That the victims shouldn’t be engaging in a “witch hunt” on the internet, that instead they should either take it to their employers or a court. And that these “skeptics” won’t believe these complaints until the people being accused are convicted by a jury of their peers.
Of course, this is a ridiculous standard, because nobody should have to prove their case in a court in order to not be harassed. In fact, nobody handles it that way. Karen Stollznow’s account describes workplace harassment, which is usually handled internally by the company.
This also ignores the very real problems that come with reporting a case of sexual assault to the police. The justice system is well known for being openly hostile to accusations of rape or sexual assault. There are plenty of examples that illustrate just how seriously (read: not seriously at all) the justice system takes accusations of rape and sexual assault.
The people who demand a trial in a court of law make the assumption that a court of law is a neutral place, where both sides will be treated equally and everyone will get a fair hearing. That’s not true. In reality, the justice system is heavily weighted against the accuser from the start. So it’s no wonder that victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape would make their case in the court of public opinion, where at least they get to make their complaint heard.
The other part of this is the position, often simultaneously held, that the victims in these cases need to prove that they’re telling the truth. That somehow they need to prove they were sexually assaulted or else they won’t be believed. Again, this is a ridiculous standard.
A well quoted saying, often attributed to Carl Sagan, is, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The inverse is also true, that rather ordinary claims require little or no evidence. If your friend tells you they saw Bigfoot, you, a skeptical person, would demand a high level of proof, because that’s an extraordinary claim. However, if your friend claims they saw their neighbor’s dog, you, the same skeptical person, would most likely believe them without hesitation.
The sad truth is, claims of sexual harassment at secular cons are very ordinary. They’re something that people have been talking about and experiencing for years. They’re why there was such a strong push last year for these cons to implement anti-harassment policies. They’re why there are so many people talking about their experiences with harassers at secular cons. This stuff happens all the time.
Because these claims of harassment and abuse are ordinary claims, in exactly the same way that “I saw my neighbor’s dog” is an ordinary claim, the same level of scrutiny should be applied. That is, the default position should be believing the claim. Skepticism doesn’t mean “rejecting claims until you have overwhelming evidence for them,” it means “believing the likeliest explanation, independently of any biases or personal opinions.”
Lastly, even if, somehow, all of these accusations magically turn out to not be true, many people in the secular movement still have a massive problem with treating other people as human beings. Many people in this movement are perfectly content with a status quo that actively harms other people. I’m not okay with that. I’m going to fight to change the culture of harassment and abuse that’s so pervasive in secularism. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept, and I refuse to accept this standard anymore.