Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I can and will not understand this

Harriet Hall wore this t-shirt at TAM 2012

It says “I feel safe and welcome at TAM”.

This is the back:


What possible motive could Harriet have for wearing this (for at least 3 days in a row)?

It can only be a passive aggressive dig at people who are concerned about harassment at conferences. And at the Skepchicks in particular, a weirdly personal attack. 

The kindest interpretation I can come up with is “shut up, ladies”.  This is the problem I have with the shirt. I don’t mind her being an arsehole, but I do mind her slapping the faces of those who do not feel safe and welcome, as though their experiences don’t matter.  Blaming her grievance on the Skepchicks is as nasty as it is pointless.

Besides, there’s a lot of misinformation and wilful ignorance about this issue. Nobody mentioned TAM until DJ Grothe suddenly said that women like Rebecca and Ophelia were scaring women away by talking about their experiences at conferences and in the atheist/skeptical community in general

Then people started talking about TAM, but I don’t think anyone singled it out as a particular problematic conference.  For instance, Rebecca decided not to go to TAM because she didn’t feel safe in the community, not because she didn’t feel safe specifically at TAM.

Update: Sastra reports here that she spoke to Harriet at TAM and that I might have misjudged her motives.  I remain only half convinced and Sastra herself isn’t quite sure she understands Harriet’s reasoning. 


[Harriet] likes the Skepchick website, reads it, and was appalled at the vitriol and online attacks aimed at Rebecca and other women over elevatorgate and pretty much everything else. She does not doubt that women are harassed and discriminated against. She considers herself a feminist.

Harriet also applauded Pamela Gay’s talk at TAM 2012 and was part of the standing ovation. 




The commenters above who suggested that she is making a point that women should aim to eliminate bias by refusing to be minimized into a “woman skeptic” category are correct. Harriet is old school, and she suggested that it’s possibly a generational thing. She doesn’t object to the Skepchicks, mind you. She’s not against them. She was very careful to make sure the back of her shirt had a small “s” on skepchicks.

It was a point that occurred to me, but it seemed (and still seems) incongruous with the wording of her t-shirt, especially the word ‘skepchick’.  The small ‘s’ comment is very strange.  If I were more even more cynical than I actually am, I’d say it sounds like plausible deniability.  Who calls themself a skepchick except for the Skepchicks themselves? 

I told her I was afraid this fine distinction would be lost.

I guess I can accept that it was bad communication on Harriet’s part, but that is so uncharacteristic of her that it’s quite a stretch to believe it.  Especially since Sastra suspects Harriet was aware of some of the wtf? comments that were turning up on the web, yet continued to wear the shirt.  If I thought that people en masse had misunderstood my message, I’d stop saying it and do my best to correct it.

My understanding is that she was defending TAM — and responding directly to something Rebecca Watson apparently wrote a day or so before the conference: “I do not feel safe or welcome at TAM” — the implication being that women in general should not feel safe or welcome at TAM. She thinks that’s nonsense.

And it is indeed nonsense, but in more ways than one because Rebecca did not say that. You can read about it in her own words here

In no way does she imply that “women in general should not feel safe or welcome at TAM.”  She says she’s not going to TAM because she finds DJ Grothe’s policy of blaming the victim and hushing up instances of abuse deplorable. She writes:

So when it comes to DJ Grothe, I can no longer support someone who is so incredibly dismissive of women’s experiences. I can’t give my time and money and energy to a man who blames women for speaking out about their own harassment, and I can’t give my time and money and energy to the organization he runs. I will always have the utmost respect for James Randi, who is responsible for inspiring me and millions of others to think critically and fight dangerous pseudoscience and superstition. It makes me incredibly sad that I can no longer support JREF.

So if this is Harriet’s motivation, minus several million for comprehension skills. And besides, ‘defending TAM’ against Rebecca Watson seems like agreeing (tacitly or explicitly) with DJ Grothe, which seems to jibe poorly with her appreciation of Pamela’s talk.

Sastra says:

I told her I thought she misunderstood the nuances of the situation: she told me she had on the contrary taken a fair amount of time to read from many sources and understood it all very well, thank you.

Perhaps Sastra is right. Quite a lot of otherwise intelligent, sensitive people seem to have misunderstood the nuances of this issue and it might explain Harriet’s apparent tin ear with the small s in skepchick.

But I’m only half convinced.  My (entirely speculative) suspicion is that Harriet decided in advance that Rebecca was being a drama queen and only read the first part of her statement on why she wouldn’t be attending TAM.  Her t-shirt is consistent with that, too, and this attitude is typical of many who disagree with Rebecca on this issue.

So I’m with Sastra in saying wtf.  And I’m with Ophelia in not understanding why someone would do that.  Personally, I’d work damn hard to make sure I really understood the issue and wasn’t kidding myself before wearing a shirt like that when giving talks at a major conference.  The inclusion of ‘skepchick’ on the shirt is by itself strong evidence that she didn’t do that.

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