Monthly Archives: July 2012

Seriously, Was Math Not Hard Enough Already?

she, her, she, her

Originally I was just speechless by this story (via Zinnia Jones) about 16 year old Ashlyn Parram first being told she could not sit an exam unless she changed into boy’s clothing, and then being segregated from the rest of the students when she pointed out that the school was violating her rights. First was how offensive the situation was, but perhaps just as bad is the reporting of the story which refers to her using male pronouns throughout. I was so shocked and disgusted that all I could think was that there were no words…

And then I thought: No. Fuck that. There are plenty of words. They are, in order: Her, her, her, assigned male at birth, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, She, She, Her, she, she, trangender, She, she, gender reassignment surgery, Her, her, her, her, she, she.

To the educators: you are a failure. Not only have you failed to attend to the needs of a student in your care, but you have gone out of your way to inflict psychological distress on her right before requiring her to take a test that could affect her academic standing. You have failed as both a teacher, and as a human being. And if my saying so makes you feel like someone has called into question a fundamental element of your identity? Now go answer some questions about polynomials.

To Ashlyn, should you ever read this: Some people spend their entire lives questioning their identities. At 16, you’ve already shown that you have not only the courage to question something that many take for granted, but also the courage to express yourself in the face of bigotry. You are awesome: never loose that. And though this situation should never should have happened in the first place, It Gets Better.

On Being a Grown-Up


It’s way better than being a kid…

Science vs Philosophy – A Reply to Brian Lynchehaun

Hello to everyone visiting from Brian Lynchehaun’s article over on Crommunist Manifesto responding to an earlier post of mine about philosophy and science.

I would like to start by clarifying that I’m not entirely unfamiliar with philosophy, as it was the subject in which I did my minor. I will mention, for the sake of full disclosure, that about 60% of my requirements were spent on classes specifically focused on logic, so I would never claim to speak authoritatively on any other area of philosophy such as metaphysics or epistemology.

I also want to say that I do have a higher opinion of philosophy than I think Brian gives me credit for. When I wrote my post, The Relative Uselessness of Philosophy in Determining Truth, part of the reason the title was so long is because every word in there was being used to narrow down what my specific objection was. I don’t say that philosophy is “totally useless”, but rather relatively so; and even then only in the specific domain of determining truth. And while this wasn’t specified, by truth I mean any objective factual claim about the nature of reality: what things exist, how they work, etc…

Actually, I’m not entirely convinced that Brian and I really disagree, but I can’t really blame him as I’m also not convinced that I was particularly clear in my previous post.

First off, I don’t actually consider philosophy and science to be any sort of dichotomy. On the contrary, if philosophers and scientists are doing their job properly they each ought to be doing at least a little bit of science and philosophy, respectively. Personally I like to think of it as an Ouroboros: a cycle with neither beginning nor end. Philosophy takes observations about the world and then speculate on the implications of those observations. This is how we arrive at a hypothesis, which science can then test. Science produces results to determine whether the hypothesis should be rejected or not and then we can proceed to make more observations on the results of these experiments. And so we arrive back at philosophy.

The difference, in my experience, is that philosophers focus more on the speculative aspects, and scientists focus more on the experimental ones. But philosophers still sometimes have to gather data (for example, by doing surveys regarding people’s ethical intuitions on complicated moral problems) and scientists still sometimes have to use reason and logic in order to come to conclusions. In these cases you have philosophers doing science and scientists doing philosophy. Far from being a dichotomy, I believe the two things are intrinsically linked.

With that said, I’d like to address the assumptions that Brian suggests that I am making.

Assumption 1: Philosophy is nothing more than people speculating from their intuitions.

I think I cover this fairly well above, but of course it is. My point is that typically when philosophers come up with an interesting idea, they usually need to do some science on top of it: philosophy alone isn’t enough to get you to truth and people who say that it is (presuppositional apologists, for example) are not going to arrive at anything true, except perhaps by accident. You need science to take the next step.

Assumption 2: “Actual scientific discoveries” trump axioms.

I stand by this. When you cling to “from nothing, nothing comes” in the face of the evidence discussed in Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, then you are being absurd. When you cling to “we must have a soul, otherwise we could not have a mind” in the face of the evidence that everything in “the mind” seems to be a neurochemical reaction in the brain, then you’re doing yourself a disservice by refusing to update your model of reality.

Of course, everyone does have axioms, including scientists. The difference is that scientific axioms are not generally clung to in the face of evidence. We don’t have scientists who refuse to accept special relativity because it violates Newton’s axioms: you just don’t see that. Even more fundamental are axioms like regularity, where we assume that the universe behaves fundamentally the same in one place/time as in another: this is the basis for most (all?) of our physical laws. But if evidence were to overturn this view, you can be that scientists (once it had been properly verified) would abandon regularity, or at least come to treat it as an approximation.

Even Brian’s example of empiricism (“[the] idea that we can get new, accurate information from examing the world, and plugging that information into our existing beliefs to help figure out which of them (if any) is true.”) could potentially be falsified if it turned out we couldn’t get accurate information from examining the world, or if having accurate information did not help us figure anything out. So far, however, this appears not to be the case.

Assumption 3: One doesn’t understand things by thinking about them really hard.

I’ll stand by this one too, with one minor alteration: One doesn’t understand things merely by thinking about them really hard. Of course it takes thought and reason to properly come to conclusions, but the idea is that this isn’t enough. I reject the notion of a priori knowledge. You also need to have some facts, evidence or data on your side. I do think I was unclear in my original post, but this was the main point I was trying to get at. In order to figure out facts about the reality, you need to have facts about the reality: you can’t just brute force your way through using the power of pure reason.

On a side note, this is why apologists like William Lane Craig drive me up the wall when they debate: They spend 15 minutes setting up how classical logic works before claiming that their god is a necessary precondition for the universe; ignoring the fact that the classical model of logic is not universal and there are many contexts in which it doesn’t apply (as a simple example, classical logic doesn’t have any way of handling propositions whose truth values may change over time). You can’t get to truth by the brute application of logic and reason: you also need observations and facts.

Which I suppose brings us to a valid question: what is more important, reasoning or observation? Obviously both are extremely important, but when it comes to describing the way the universe is, I honestly believe that we could get by on facts alone. It wouldn’t be pretty, but imagine a hypothetical machine intended to simulate the universe. If you were to simply plug in every fact about reality into the machine, such as physical laws or properties of objects in the (simulated) universe, devoid of any interpretation; you could get a pretty close approximation of the actual universe. Philosophy and science both have their uses, but when it comes to determining truth, in my opinion, science is the more valuable (and trustworthy) choice.

Assumption 4: Ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… don’t actually tell you about the world.

It depends what you mean by “don’t actually tell you about the world”. Specifically, what I mean is that branches of philosophy such as the ones mentioned above don’t tell you what sorts of things physically exist or how they physically work, ie: none of these branches help you arrive at facts about physical reality. I’m going to take ethics as an example. Ethics is great at figuring out if you should kill someone, when that’s okay (or not), and why. But an ethic isn’t a thing: it’s not something that exists that we can observe or measure or point at. For lack of a better term, it’s not real. It’s a model of how we should behave, but it’s not a thing that actually exists. It’s useful and important, but it’s not a feature of the universe; rather it’s a feature of how we’ve constructed our society (or how we ought to).

Metaphysics, on the other hand does try to make claims about the universe. For example, when I took my metaphysics course, we learned about nominalism, which as I understand it (or as it was explained to me) makes various claims about, say, what it means to be red. Perhaps there is some ephemeral class of objects, and to be red is to be a member of that class; or that there is some inherent redness that is possessed only by red objects and this redness is shared between all red objects.

Ask a scientist what red is and they’re much more likely to give you an answer akin to “‘red’ is a linguistic marker we use to denote objects which reflect a certain segment of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, with a wavelength of roughly ~620-740nm”. Done.

To me, branches of philosophy such as metaphysics or theology which try to stake a claim on the nature of reality (which, again, is to say what things exists or how they work) without doing any sort of science-y stuff, are branches of philosophy that I just can’t bring myself to take seriously.

Assumption 5:  Data has nothing to do with Philosophy.

I reject this, as much as I imagine Brian does. Data is the starting point for philosophy. It’s where we jump off from before we can go looking for more truth, and it’s ultimately where we come back to, with a whole bunch of science in between.

At the end of the day, philosophers and scientists are in the same boat: we’re all just looking for truth. There are philosophers (such as William Lane Craig) who are doing it wrong, but philosophy properly done really is the underpinning of science, which is what feeds back into philosophy.

So why, then, do I say that philosophy is relatively useless compared to science when it comes to determining truth, considering that the two are nigh-impossible to separate? Well, okay, I’ll admit that I may have been a little bit hyperbolic in attacking all of philosophy when really I was just trying to go after a couple of positions I keep hearing over and over again (“you can’t get something from nothing!”). But (and I say this knowing full well the bias that I carry with me as being primarily a scientist), I do believe that science is doing most of the leg work when it comes to the “figuring out what’s true” part of the cycle. Maybe that’s petty, seeing as how crucially philosophy underpins science. I’ll think some more about it.

Batman: Capital Punishment & Self Defense

This is an essay I wrote on Facebook about the morality of Batman, on November 6th, 2009. As I recall, it was prompted by a particular playthrough of the most excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum and the scene where Joker gives Batman a free shot to take him out “once and for all” (around 1:45 in the clip).

I’ve recently been contemplating the ethics of Batman. Specifically, his refusal to kill. For the sake of argument, I’m going to use the Joker as the primary case.

The question at hand: Should Batman kill the Joker?

Three sets of circumstances come to mind: capital punishment, self defense and defense of others.

I maintain the position that capital punishment is wrong in all circumstances. If the Joker is already in Arkham, whether for treatment or simply for containment; the state has no right to kill him as he is no immediate danger to anyone. It may be argued that, in the case of the Joker, treatment is not an option: he’s just that crazy. But even if he is a hopeless case, we can still hold him in custody so that he isn’t a danger to others. Of course, this is the Joker: Batman’s greatest nemesis. Sooner or later he will escape from Arkham. Why not execute him now and be done with it?

The problem with that line of thought is, from a legal perspective, once you apply that reasoning to the Joker, you can apply it to any criminal. The possibility that that criminal will someday escape or be released, at which point they could be a danger to others is present regardless of the criminal. Why not execute them all? Well the general arguments against capital punishment (which I will omit here) still apply to those criminals. It’s a legal mistake to make an exception for a single one.

The second case, self defense, I choose to ignore due to circumstance. After all, we are talking about Batman, and physically the Joker is no match for him. The threat of the Joker comes from the threat he poses to others, the games he plays of which it is Batman’s job to stop. From a legal standpoint, it would likely be justifiable for Batman to kill the Joker if he truly had no other choice in order to survive. However, if given the option to take down the Joker with either lethal or non-lethal methods, I believe it’s fair to allow his personal ethics of not killing to inform his judgments.

The final case, defense of others, is, I believe, the relevant one: if the Joker is an immediate threat to another person. The term “immediate” is important and meant to distinguish between, for example, holding a gun to the person’s head and having planted a bomb. The difference being that the Joker’s death would resolve the first situation, but not the second. So, if the Joker is an immediate threat to the life of another person (whom we’ll refer to as a hostage), should Batman kill him?

One of the first considerations that comes to mind is how a regular law-enforcement officer (police, soldiers, etc…) would be entitled to handle the situation. Well that officer would be permitted to take lethal action. Shouldn’t Batman be able to take the same action?

There’s a crucial difference between a law-enforcement officer and Batman, however. Law-enforcement officers are governed by the state. They have strict restrictions on when they can or cannot kill. Batman has no such standing (unless we look at the “deputized agents of the law” of the 1960’s Batman and Robin, but they aren’t the typical representations of the characters). If Batman is permitted, by whatever ethics, to kill the Joker, there’s no real oversight to it.

That being said, this is Batman we’re talking about. We know (at least “we” the audience and not necessarily “we” the people of Gotham) that, even if he allowed himself to kill, Batman would never abuse this. His moral compass is sufficiently strong to never kill when it wouldn’t be allowed for a law-enforcement officer to do so.

But what about any other vigilantes? In a number of interpretations of Batman (Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight) there are groups who take up Batman’s mission, only with less discriminating moral codes. If Batman, a man with no oversight, is permitted to kill, such men might do the same, only under circumstances not typically permitted. People without proper training and oversight being given implicit permission to kill does not seem like a morally justifiable course of action.

Every way I look at it, the rational conclusion I come to is that Batman shouldn’t be morally permitted to kill the Joker. And yet, intuitively, I feel that he would be completely justified in doing so. I’m not quite certain how to resolve this incongruity. Perhaps it points to the idea that emotion shouldn’t dictate law, but rather rational thought and logic. There are a number of such laws which seem motivated more by emotion than insight, including the above-mentioned capital punishment, prostitution, drug use, bans on gay marriage and bans on polygamy.

Perhaps, rather than turning to intuition to decide laws, it would be best to consider them reasonably. Nothing ought to be sacred and everything ought to be questioned. If emotion leads to the same conclusion as rational thought, then all the better. On the other hand, if they don’t, then perhaps there ought to be some introspection to figure out why.

That quickly turned away from the topic at hand: should Batman be allowed to kill? But as I said, reason seems to disagree with intuition on that one. In the end, I suppose, I’ll have to give it some more thought to figure out why.

On Shouting Down the Opposition

A quick shout out to anyone who’s coming over from Jason at Lousy Canuck! Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!

Today I would like to address two points that seem to be cropping up over and over again in regards to the Sexual Harassment/Feminism “debate”.

  1. “I have freedom of speech, you can’t tell me to stop talking.”
  2. “By telling me to stop talking, you’re just bullying me into silence.”

Obviously these two points are related, but I have separate things I’d like to say about them.

Freedom of Speech

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Freedom of speech is an important thing. In fact, it’s the cornerstone of a free society: the government cannot prevent you from expressing any particular view. Furthermore, even though I quote the American constitution above, I am Canadian, and these points are not specific to the US, but rather a more general notion of free speech. It’s worth noting that this applies directly to unpopular or offensive speech: nobody needs a law to protect popular speech. But there are a few things that free speech does not mean:

  1. Freedom of speech is a relationship between governments and persons. It doesn’t in any way affect relationships between people. If I, as a private citizen prevent you, another private citizen, from being able to make your point, then your rights have not been violated. As a random, completely hypothetical example, say a popular vlogger (let’s call him LightningH4nd) joins a popular blogging website (let’s call it Freethinking Diaries, or FTD) and proceeds to make an idiot out of himself. FTD decides that they no longer want to host LightningH4nd’s lunatic ravings (for whatever reason, maybe they don’t like being disagreed with, or maybe H4nd’s behaviour behind the scenes was not very professional: it doesn’t matter) and so they take his blog down. This is not a violation of his free speech. In the same way I have the right to evict you from my house if you’re being an asshole: you still have the right to be an asshole, you just don’t have the right to do it in my living room.
  2. Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence. Just because you’re allowed to say something doesn’t mean that you’re free from the consequences of what you said. If you are vocally pro-choice, your pro-life friends may stop wanting to hang out with you. If you’re vocally pro-life, your pro-choice friends might do the same. If you march into your boss’ office and tell her she’s an idiot (or deserves to be kicked in the cunt), you’re probably not going to have a job tomorrow. And if you post something stupid online, people might just go ahead and embarrass you for being an idiot. None of this violates your rights to say things.
  3. Freedom of speech does not guarantee respect. If you say something stupid, just because you’re allowed to say it doesn’t mean that we have to take is seriously. In fact, it usually means we have a rational obligation to disagree with you. The stupider the thing you say, the louder we get to disagree. For example, want to whine that creationists just aren’t given their fair chance to get their crap into science classes; I have no problem with people calling you an idiot.

So can you please stop whining that we’re not respecting the “Harassment Policies will ruin my lolz” crowd’s freedom of speech? We’re not required to.

Bullying into Silence

The other complaint that keeps getting leveled, particularly at the Freethought Blogs crowd, is that by arguing fiercely with people who think that sexual harassment isn’t a problem, or that conferences don’t need anti-harassment policies, or that the people who complain are just a bunch of crybaby pussies; the people on the “Sexual Harassment Bad. Let’s Stop it.” side are somehow “bullying” their opponents.

For the sake of argument, I will accept that what they are doing constitutes “bullying”.

In this particular case, for this particular issue, the “bullies” are right.

When the side you’re opposing is a) horribly wrong, b) giving arguments that are causing actual harm, and c) there’s already been enough discussion that anyone who is honestly interested in educating themselves has the resources to do it; shouting down the opposition is actually a perfectly reasonable tactic.

I want to take a moment to compare the anti-anti-harassment policy folks (whom I will refer to as misogynists for the sake of brevity) to creationists trying to get their crap into science classes:

a) Horribly wrong:

Creationists: Views contradicted be the overabundance of evidence to the contrary.

Misogynists: Views contradicted by the overabundance of women who say they would rather have anti-harassment policies at conferences, as well as the fact that when TAM instituted such a policy, their female attendance rate skyrocketed.

Creationists: Don’t understand well-defined terms like “theory”.

Misogynists: Don’t understand well-defined terms like “harassment” (hint: it isn’t “talking to women” contrary to the strawman arguments).

Creationists: Don’t understand the proper context for particular conversations (eg: science class is not the place for religion).

Misogynists: “But men are the victims of just as much oppression as women!”

Creationists: Play the victim card by claiming that they’re being denied academic freedom to pander their bullshit in classrooms.

Misogynists: Play the victim card by claiming that they’re being denied intellectual freedom to assert their opinion that bitches were asking for it, and just need to take it like a man.

b) Actually causing harm:

Creationists: When you refuse to teach children proper science, their science skills plummet, and they won’t be equipped to dealing with the real world.

Misogynists: When you refuse to listen to women who are complaining about sexual harassment, you leave a door open to the perpetrators to keep getting away with what they’re doing.

Creationists: Cause a drop in enrollment in science programs, as kids don’t have the proper background (or haven’t had their interest properly sparked) to pursue science.

Misogynists: Cause a drop in female attendance at conferences, as WOMEN DON’T WANT TO BE GODDAMNED HARASSED!

c) Opportunity for people to educate themselves

Creationists: These guys could easily read talkorigins or wiki-fucking-pedia for 5 minutes to get a grasp on what they’re arguing against.

Misogynists: As much as you might want to complain about Rebecca Watson or Freethought Blogs just shouting down the opposition, more words have probably been written on this subject within the atheist community in the past year than any other single issue. You can’t possibly expect me to take seriously the claim that the Feminazis aren’t leaving room for discourse. There’s just been so much room for discourse so far that you’re either not bothering to participate or you’re willfully ignorant of the claims against you. In either case, it’s time to shut the fuck up.

It’s truly amazing how much two groups can really have in common…

Sisterhood of the Oppressed – A Critique

Paula Kirby is a writer whose work I have never read who, this weekend, posted an essay called “Sisterhood of the Oppressed” criticizing (no, wait, go on… guess) the segment of the atheist/skeptic movement who think that harassment is bad and we ought to do something about it. While this should be a pretty non-controversial point, apparently it is not and the internet has exploded in a firestorm of rage over the last few weeks. I’m not familiar with Kirby’s work at all, so without any context other than what she wrote in her essay, here we go:

(Incidentally, if you’re new to this discussion, Jason Thibeault over at Lousy Canuck has a decent timeline of what’s been going on in this conversation in case you need a little bit of background.)

We start off with a defense of the term “feminazi”. Now I don’t really have a problem with namecalling when you’re trying to make an emotional appeal. I don’t have an issue with terms like “anti-choice” or “idiot” when you’re just trying to get in a quick jab at the person you’re arguing with. But when it comes to “nazi”, can’t we at least agree that that’s a little extreme? You don’t win argument points by pointing wildly at something bad and saying “YOU’RE JUST LIKE THEM!” (complete with caps-lock). Nazis killed millions of people in an attempt to exterminate entire segments of the human population. Kirby is arguing against a group of people whose “crimes” are literally things like saying “Guys, don’t do that“, or that sexual harassment is a thing that happens sometimes. The thing about analogies is that they should scale properly. Comparing people saying words to other people killing millions is more than a little bit out-of-sync. On top of which, 99% of the time that you compare your opponent to Nazis, you’ve already lost the argument: it’s just not a point that people tend to respect.

But! (says Kirby) we’re not comparing them to actual Nazis, but rather to a general notion of Nazisim “used to simply mean ‘extremist’ or ‘obsessive'”. While this is still a stupid rhetorical point, let’s look at what Kirby considers totalitarian”

Hysterical, bullying overreaction to dissent? Attempting to make it so unpleasant for anyone who dares to oppose them that others are deterred from trying it? Utter conviction that their own ideology is absolutely right and just, and that no questioning of it can therefore ever be permitted?

So, hyperbole aside, we’re talking basically about conviction towards an ideology that you feel compelled to defend. You know, like the Republicanazis and the Democranazis. The Christinazis and the Athenazis. Don’t forget about the GLBTN with their totalitarian gay rights agenda. Look, if that’s your definition of a “Nazi” extremist is someone who has and defends an ideology, then you’re going to get caught in your own trap. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe the “hysterical, bullying overreaction to dissent” really is over-the-top enough to warrant the label. So with (what I imagine would have to be) a world full of examples of how the feminazis are suppressing dissent, surely Kirby can find us three REALLY good examples.

Let’s not forget the abuses of speakers’ “privilege” at certain conferences, where audience members holding “the wrong attitudes” have been picked on by the speaker from the platform.

For those not aware, this a reference to Rebecca Watson giving a talk at the 2011 CFI Leadership Conference regarding the “elevator incident” where she mentions a particular comment about the incident:

So apparently “publicly disagreeing with someone” is suppressing dissent. There’s a valid argument to be made that what Watson did was bad form in that it wasn’t the proper forum to call someone out over a disagreement by placing her next to comments advocating that Watson be slapped or raped. But this is a far cry from “silencing dissent”. Disagreement with people happens, and sometimes people are going to be hurt by it. But there’s a difference between “here’s what a person said and I disagree with them and here’s why” and over a year’s worth of telling someone that you’re going to rape them, or that they’re too ugly to rape, and using the name “Rebecca Twatson” as though you think you’re being clever when really it’s impossible to be clever by repeating the same insult for OVER A GODDAMNED YEAR.

Saturday saw someone on Twitter being harassed by one of the Sisterhood for having had the temerity to simply follow the decidedly unapproved @AngrySkepchick. Not even your “Follow” lists are now safe from the prying eyes of the Sisters, and be sure you will be subject to interrogation if your choices appear to deviate from the required standard!

This second example, I actually hadn’t heard about and it took some Google digging to figure out. I guess on Saturday, Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) of Skepchick fame challenged one of the speakers at the upcoming TAM 2012, Sharon Hill, over the fact that she was following a twitter account called @AngrySkepchick that was mocking Rebecca Watson (people’s hatred of whom always seems to enter into these things…). As a public figure, her tacit endorsement of an insult campaign versus Watson could be viewed as a inappropriate, and Roth called her on it by saying that she would no longer follow Hill on Twitter. At its core, that’s pretty much it: A woman on Twitter unfollowed another woman on Twitter over something she felt was inappropriate… Ergo, FEMINAZI SILENCING OF DISCUSSION AND OPPRESSION OF DISAGREEMENT!

As for Kirby’s third example of silencing dissent:

the blogs, of course.

Specific as that is, I’m not really sure what to say to it. Maybe she’s talking about comment policies? I’m not really sure. So these are (one assumes) the best examples of how radical feminists are oppressing discourse on issues: publicly addressing comments and unfollowing people on Twitter. And blogs.

But fine, let’s assume that they are radically suppressing the voices of those who disagree with them. Let’s look at the point that’s actually being disagreed upon:

  • Some women at conferences feel harassed.
  • Women who feel harassed at conferences are less likely to go.
  • Such women have said that instituting an anti-harassment policy would make them feel more comfortable.
  • An anti-harassment policy would not negatively affect the experience of anyone who wasn’t harassing women.
  • Therefore, institute a fucking harassment policy.

Honestly, this battle is pretty much won. American Atheists, Dragon*Con, CFI, SkepchickCON, Skepticon, SSA Con and more all have instituted harassment policies. Even TAM, at the centre of all the controversy, had a harassment policy last year, which one assumes will be carried over seeing as how last year’s TAM was the largest turnout of women they’ve ever had (ie: anti-harassment policies get more women to come).

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Some people want a harassment policy and feel don’t comfortable coming without one. Anyone who doesn’t care won’t be affected and anyone who actively opposes a harassment policy should think long and hard about what exactly their reasons are for opposing it. Do you think it’s because such policies are anti-sex? Then you should check out the anti-harassment policy of a goddamned sex-based conference: OpenSF.

This should be such a non-controversial point that anyone defending it has the right to treat their opponents like idiots. Harassment bad. Don’t do it.

Kirby, however, would rather continue comparing feminists to Nazis.

Let’s consider 1930s Germany for a moment. How did the Nazis gain popular support? By exploiting a sense of grievance post-Versailles, by continually telling the German people they’d been treated abominably, had their noses ground in the dust, been unfairly penalized, that they were the victims of an international, Jew-led conspiracy, that they needed to rise from the ashes and gain their revenge and their proper, god-ordained place in the world.


Change the terminology a little and you have the poor, oppressed, victimized, unfairly ignored women being urged to rise up against the evil conspiracy of those men, women-haters, sister-shamers and gender-traitors who are responsible for all their woes.

Except that there was no Jew-led conspiracy out to keep the German people down; whereas the effects of misogyny can be felt by how any woman who dares speak up against it gets threats of rape and violence. Even if the two situations were comparable, Nazis went on to kill millions of people and the feminists are simply saying “hey guys, don’t harass women”.

Speaking of harassment, did you know that it’s not actually a problem?

Absolutely anyone can find themselves being sexually propositioned at any conference at all if they hang out in the bar long enough, and late enough at night. (snip)  For those who engage in the propositioning and those who respond positively to it (and many do), it is presumably one of the fun bits of life. I simply do not accept that any reasonably mature, rational adult does not know exactly how to avoid getting into this kind of situation if he or she would prefer not to, or how to deal with it if it occurs.

Nobody other than the concocted strawmen in the heads of those who oppose the anti-harassment policies actually has a problem with this situation, in principle. Some people like to have sex at conferences. That’s great! They should go out and have a blast. But some people like to go to bars and hang out, and they should be able to enjoy themselves too. The point is, don’t make sex the primary thing. If you’re having a conversation with someone and one thing leads to another, then you’ve lucked out. But if you’re just having a good conversation and it doesn’t lead anywhere physical? Guess what, you still lucked out! You got to talk to some cool people and maybe make a few new friends. Heaven forbid that you not get laid after all your hard work of making conversation with people. Find yourself in a conversation with someone who you don’t think wants to sex you up? You’re free to leave and talk to someone with more similar intentions. If the people who want sex can get it, and the people who just want to hang out can do that EVERYBODY WINS. All you have to do is not start out your conversations with “Want to go back to my room?” and a wink.

I am talking about normal, non-violent situations in which no assault takes place.

Well you know what? Some of us are. Because in addition to the issue of constant but non-violent string of sexual propositions from certain attendees there are other issues of women being groped, or stalked or possibly having upskirt photos taken of them that need to be dealt with. An anti-harassment policy does this too. It gives conference staff the explicit ability to throw people out harassing women when they’re doing things as extreme as this. It’s not an admission that this sort of thing happens all the time. It doesn’t. But it also doesn’t have to in order to have a negative effect. We don’t want to hear that sexual harassment never happens at conferences, because that’s probably not true. We want to hear if  it happens what does the conference plan to do about it.

Kirby then attempts to address the criticism that there aren’t enough female speakers at conferences by spending a few pages talking about how men don’t keep women from speaking out, women just naturally don’t speak out. She does this by talking about her time organizing events or meetings for business people, and how the women would always stay silent.

My background is in business. I have lost count of the number of times I have been present at meetings when the women said nothing and left it all to the men. I’ve been guilty of it myself, many a time. Was it because the men weren’t willing to listen to the women? I don’t think it was. Did the men dismiss our comments if we made them? No, they didn’t. Did they try to stop us making them? No, they didn’t do that either. Were the women lacking in ideas? No, of course not. We just didn’t speak up. Crucially, many of us didn’t speak up, even when openly invited to do so.

It’s their own fault, dammit!

Let’s put aside the notion that maybe, just maybe, women stay silent because often when the speak up about an issue, they’re met with a backlash that is either because of their gender or focused on their gender. For a recent example of this, check out the story of Anita Sarkesian who started a project critiquing the depiction of women in video games. Before she even started working on the project (having merely announced it) she was called a bitch, whore, slut, feminazi (of course) and cunt, told to get back in the kitchen, make a sandwich and show her tits.

Let’s put aside the notion that this is not an uncommon occurrence.

Kirby is trying to make the argument that women don’t actually have an interest in speaking up and presenting at conferences. I’ll admit, I don’t know much about the business world. Maybe this is true there (I doubt it), but the atheists and skeptic movement is a much different place, and there’s no shortage of women available to speak at conferences. This list includes:

  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • Ophelia Benson
  • Susan Jacoby
  • Jen McCreight
  • Taslima Nasrin
  • Christina Radd
  • Natalie Reed
  • Greta Christina
  • Maryam Namazie
  • Sikivu Hutchinson
  • Amanda Marcotte
  • Rebecca Watson
  • Tracie Harris
  • Jen Peeples
  • Ashley Paramore
  • Julia Sweeney
  • Jessica Ahlquist
  • and Paula Kirby, herself!

Not to mention the Women In Secularism conference which took place a couple months ago, which only goes to show just how many great female speakers are out there who could be invited to speak conferences. Since this issue has started coming up, conferences have started focusing on exactly this, with a greater and greater percentage of female speakers (and, consequently, attendees). But Kirby somehow views it as ironic that these women would have a place to speak, rather than giving it up to “new names” or “fresh new women secularists” but this ignores a huge aspect of conferences: the networking. It is about getting new faces to come out to conferences, and whether or not you’re up on stage, you’re now involved with the movement just by being there. And when you reach out to women (by, for example, instituting the anti-harassment policies they ask for) you (surprise!) get more women to attend. TAM, of all places, were the ones who proved this last year.

So if you say that women being invited to be speakers means there’s not a problem, you’re an idiot. It simply means that we’re winning.