6/28/12

The American Atheists' Harassment Policy

While we all wait to find out what the Supremes think of the Affordable Care Act, let's have a look at the Harassment Policy hammered out by American Atheists in the wake of the recent online brouhaha about such things.  Here's the core of the policy--
That all sounds exactly right. [Update10:10 am:  Is there stuff to quibble with? I just read this, and maybe so, but it strikes me as being mostly on the right track.]

Another part of the policy really ought to be removed. This is just plain silly:
You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders—and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.
What exactly is wrong with negotiating these things as we do the rest of the time--by paying attention to non-verbal cues?  It's better that way, most of us think.  We don't go through life constantly asking "I haven't seen you for a long time--may I hug you?"  Or "I'd like to show solidarity and sympathy--may I touch your arm as I say this next sentence?"  We don't, because (let us count the problems)--

(1) If we explicitly asked, then we'd put the person we want to touch/hug in the awkward position of having to say "no" if they don't want to be touched/hugged.  It would have been so much more thoughtful to notice the cues and not call attention to their sensitivity.

(2) If we had to explicitly ask, we'd ruin spontaneity--so most of us would just do less touching and hugging.

(3) If we asked, it would highlight what is better left subterranean--that touching has some mild sexual undertones, touching is ever so slightly intimate, touching can be gross to some people, some people may find me in particular gross.

If I were thinking of going to an American Atheists convention (to be honest, I am not), I'd find it off-putting to be told how to negotiate touching ("no touching other people without asking") or even just be "encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent." This crosses the line from what's the conference's business (all the stuff in the box above) to what's not.  It's up to me, I think, how I handle the vast number of decisions that are in the realm of etiquette, not law or even ethics.  I'd be appalled if a conference organizer issued instructions about what to say after belching, whether and when to hold doors for other people, when to address someone by their first name, etc.  It's paternalistic and infantilizing -- suitable for managing a bunch of 10 year olds, but not for running a conference attended by adults.

And no, it doesn't help that David Silverman has added that he wants people to have sex at American Atheist conferences.  There's something a little weird going on when it's seen as GRRRREAT!!!! for people to have casual hook-ups, but a serious infraction (worthy of being addressed in a conference policy) to touch someone without first asking permission. Yes, sexual touching without permission is a serious infraction (the boxed policy is all to the good), but mere casual touching and hugging between acquaintances?

I'm struck by the contrast with religious communities.  In a religious community, there is constant touching between acquaintances.  For example, the reform Jewish temple I attend (infrequently) is an extremely touchy place.  Before, during, and after the service you see constant physical interaction.  Ask permission? You've got to be kidding.  There is also a lot of synchronization--people stand up and sit down at the same times during the service. All this synching and touching is part of feeling collective joy, sorrow, etc.--all feelings evoked at times by a religious service. But sex? Well, it's kind of a special thing, reserved (at least ideally) for special relationships. It's a strange inversion to make a big deal of casual touching, putting it on a verbal-permission-only basis, while encouraging casual sex.  That sounds like a recipe for killing off solidarity in a community while ramping up private titillation.  With rules like that, I should think, "things fall apart, the center cannot hold."

***

Supreme court decision is now out.  It looks like ... YESSSSS!  Good news. More on that later.



26 comments:

Notung said...

I agree with this completely.

Perhaps the over-zealous clampdown on casual touching is just to avoid criticism from the usual suspects.

Nevertheless, I agree. If I needed to ask permission to hug someone then it's far less awkward to just not hug them.

I don't see what's wrong with "if they seem uncomfortable with hugs then ask for their permission", or "if they ask you not to touch them then respect their wishes". Of course, these 'policies' should go without saying...

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, and they could add--"Pay attention to cues. Not everyone wants to be touched and hugged." Though--what kind of neanderthals don't know this? I begin to wonder who goes to these conferences and what they are really like. Does the policy also need to say "Clean stray food morsels out of facial hair after meals"?

John Greg said...

Bravo Jean. Very well said.

Ardent Skeptic said...

I think it will be difficult to NOT make offensive verbal comments about religion at an Atheist convention.

Michael Kingsford Gray said...

Jean asks: "Pay attention to cues... Though--what kind of neanderthals don't know this?"

People with Aspergers' Syndrome are not Neanderthals.

Tristan said...

MKG: yes, but hopefully people with Asperger's know they have difficulty picking up non-verbal cues, and develop strategies to work around this difficulty - in this case, asking first would probably be a pretty good idea. Still not something that has to be codified into an official rule.

greg byshenk said...

"And no, it doesn't help that David Silverman has added that he wants people to have sex at American Atheist conferences. There's something a little weird going on when it's seen as GRRRREAT!!!! for people to have casual hook-ups, but a serious infraction (worthy of being addressed in a conference policy) to touch someone without first asking permission."

I don't see this as a conflict, as the matter at issue is consent. If people want to touch each other, or participate in "casual hookups", then that is all well and good. If someone doesn't want to be touched (at all, perhaps), then it is a problem.

Further, I don't see that this will introduce any real problem. After all, if someone is an old friend, or even a somewhat casual friend, then one should already know whether they appreciate or object to hugs or other touches, and asking is unnecessary. It is only in the case that one doesn't know the other person well enough to know their feelings on touching that such a rule would come into play.

Being someone who doesn't attend such conferences, I can't say whether such a rule is really required, but I recognize that there are some people who are intrusively "touchy" with strangers or those they have just met, which can make others uncomfortable. I think it is just this type of case that the rule is meant to address.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't know that much about people with Asperger's. It could be they're better off adopting a personal code of conduct where they do ask before they touch people. It doesn't follow that should be the general code of conduct in larger groups.

About casual touching vs. casual sex--

This is pretty speculative, but (as I said in the post) it seems to me that a relaxed attitude toward touch is part of being a close and cohesive group--like a family. In the gay community, I have the impression, there's lots of touching. In religious communities (as I said in the post), touching and synchronized movement is part of what creates cohesion. Casual sex, on the other hand, doesn't create group cohesion. It just pairs people off to pursue their own private pleasure. So David Silverman shouldn't think it's all to the good if his policies suppress casual touch, but preserve casual sex. Something important might actually be lost, namely group bonding and cohesion.

Touch is social glue--that's the idea. If you set up challenging preconditions ("ask before you touch") you sacrifice some of the glue. That's not my main argument, by the way. My main argument is that it's better to secure consent for touching non-verbally and by having community-wide norms about where and how we touch each other.

Jean Kazez said...

CfI's sexual harassment policy seems like all anyone could want. Good for them--

http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/cfis_new_policy_on_hostile_conduct_harassment_at_conferences/

Ardent Skeptic said...

I agree, Jean! The CFI policy seems sensible and reasonable.

greg byshenk said...

"This is pretty speculative, but (as I said in the post) it seems to me that a relaxed attitude toward touch is part of being a close and cohesive group--like a family. [...] So David Silverman shouldn't think it's all to the good if his policies suppress casual touch, but preserve casual sex. Something important might actually be lost, namely group bonding and cohesion."
But a conference, which will include many strangers or nodding acquaintances is not "like a family". Certainly there may be some attendees who are friends with each other, but those who actually are such will already know their friends' attitudes toward being touched. The only cases in which the rule would have actual application are those where one does not know the other person, and wishes to presume to know their feelings on the matter.
I suspect that this whole discussion has something to do with issues of differential experience. That is, I suspect that there are certain people who are much more likely to be the object of unwanted or inappropriate touching than others.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Certainly there may be some attendees who are friends with each other, but those who actually are such will already know their friends' attitudes toward being touched. The only cases in which the rule would have actual application are those where one does not know the other person, and wishes to presume to know their feelings on the matter."

The problem is that this is not what the policy actually says. It just says "No touching other people without asking," rather than (as the OpenSF policy does) "No touching other people without asking! (Or unless you already have that sort of relationship with them.)" There's also no indication that unequivocal nonverbal cues, like putting out one's hand to be shaken or the "awkward 'wanna hug?' gesture" (as the OpenSF policy puts it), count as a form of asking. If one wanted to interpret the AA policy literally, then the person who puts out a hand to be shaken might not be at fault, but the person who grabs the hand is technically touching without asking and thus is in violation of the policy.

Now one may argue that those kind of violations don't count because no one will report them to conference staff. The problem is that if one has to violate the policy in order to do things that reasonable people will consider innocent, then people will lose respect for the policy and not take it seriously.

Julian Francisco said...

"This crosses the line from what's the conference's business (all the stuff in the box above) to what's not. It's up to me, I think, how I handle the vast number of decisions that are in the realm of etiquette, not law or even ethics."

This doesn't even make sense. How can how attendance members treat one another not be something organizers and staff should be concerned with? They've noticed an issue with touching without permission. They may have taken a measure you feel belittles you but don't act as if they're wrong to try and discourage a form of behavior they've received complaints of.

"In a religious community, there is constant touching between acquaintances."

Yes. And it's annoying to have to deal with my mother's friends coming up to kiss, hug and feel up my shoulders whenever I come to visit.

Don't touch without asking.

Julian Francisco said...

"Of course, these 'policies' should go without saying...-Notung"

Just like don't sell products whose efficacy you can't demonstrate.

greg byshenk said...

J.J. Ramsey
"The problem is that this is not what the policy actually says. It just says "No touching other people without asking," rather than (as the OpenSF policy does) "No touching other people without asking! (Or unless you already have that sort of relationship with them.)"
I can imagine changes in the wording of the rule, but this is different than the substance of this discussion. Might it be more legalistically clear if the rule were "Before initiating any physical contact, it is the duty of the initiator to be certain that the other person consents to being touched. Should there be any doubt, the initiator is responsible for asking permission"? Of course, I submit, first, that this is the only sensible interpretation of the existing rule, and second, that it could be argued that even the more explicit rule is insufficiently clear in some cases (there is no perfect rule that is without judgment in application).

Further, should one be faced with a stranger putting out his or her hand, or otherwise appearing to invite contact, a simply "may I...?" would seem to allow even the letter of the rule to be followed, and without any terrific break in spontaneity.

Notung said...

Julian: Just like don't sell products whose efficacy you can't demonstrate.

I'm not sure what your point is here.

Julian Francisco said...

@Notung

That because something should go without saying does not mean it does. More specifically I'm mocking the idea of "it goes without saying" because the list of things that do really isn't big enough for how often it's heard.

Write the comment and whatever else up however you like.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Greg Byshenk: "Of course, I submit, first, that this is the only sensible interpretation of the existing rule"

That it's not the "only sensible interpretation" is pretty clear from the differences between the language of the OpenSF policy and the language of the AA policy. "No touching without asking" does not mean "No touching without asking, except for [...]." It means "No touching without asking."

Greg Byshenk: "Further, should one be faced with a stranger putting out his or her hand, or otherwise appearing to invite contact, a simply 'may I...?'"

You are missing my point. The "may I?" is working around a bug in the policy. Furthermore, as I said before, conference attendees need to have respect for the policy so that they take it seriously as a guide to conduct. Saying "may I?" highlights a bug in the policy and invites ridicule of it.

Ardent Skeptic said...

Jean,

Here's a different perspective on the policy issue from a blogger who had a brief discussion with an attorney. You may have seen this already, but just in case:

A LAWYER’S PERSPECTIVE ON CONFERENCE ANTI-HARASSMENT POLICIES

Makes it difficult to know what to do.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, the anti-hugging policy is ridiculous. As I've said in other forums, I would not attend a convention with such a stupid and intrusive conduct policy. Once again, atheists have been made to look like idiots.

onefuriousllama.com said...

Awesome post - your point's are great.

Maria Maltseva said...

The attorney encouraging disclaimers is entirely correct. And, in fact, his suggested policy is almost identical to the policy in place at the conference hosting Skepchickon (though this year, Greg Laden wrote a special addendum just for Skepchick areas, because the men in our community apparently can't abide by normal standards of conduct).

If the CFI wants to adopt a policy where they don't presume the accused to be innocent, act as arbitrators of all disputes, and take on liability for the actions of third parties or for their failure to properly address them, that's their choice. The no touching without asking portion of the AA policy, on the other hand, is simply ridiculous.

All this based on one poorly reported incident of harassment which was quickly and properly dealt with.

BTW, if you give someone sexual attention and they don't want it, according to the wording of the AA policy, you're immediately in violation. It doesn't sound like cordial relations, let alone sex, are encouraged by draconian policies such as these.

Finally, none of these policies would prevent someone asking another person to coffee, even in an elevator early in the morning.

greg byshenk said...

I just posted this over at Talking Philosophy:

"Whether or not the policy is ideal, the problem it addresses is, I submit, a real one, which is that, even if “it isn’t all that difficult to convey through body language” that one doesn’t wish to be touched, there are certain people who refuse to recognize those signals. The problem is not that women are “mentally weak and socially incompetent”, but that there are some (almost invariably men) who insist on pushing boundaries, which means that just trusting to “body language” and social signals is ineffective in such cases.

How about a revision of the rules:

It is the responsibility of the person initiating physical contact to ensure – by asking for consent, if necessary – that such physical contact is welcome. Initiating unwanted physical contact may be considered harassment.

This is more straightforward, although I’m not sure it is better. It strikes me as more “legalistic”, but no different in effect than the existing rule."


I submit that there is indeed no difference in effect between the two formulations, for the reasons already given here. Yes, my rephrasing is not the only possible interpretation, but I submit it is the only reasonable one.


Maria, I would suggest that unwanted sexual attention would not normally be considered a part of "cordial relations".

Russell Blackford said...

I wonder what people actually have in mind when they hear the phrase "unwanted sexual attention". Taken in the most literal way, the phrase can cover a vast range of behaviour where no one has done anything wrong. Use your imagination and you'll come up with endless examples.

I suppose, that the phrase will be interpreted narrowly in practice to involve somehow hassling somebody in a sexual way. We've all experienced or witnessed that kind of "unwanted sexual attention" and been annoyed (or more than annoyed) by it. But if the phrase were applied literally it could cover all sorts of everyday and innocuous behaviour. It's really not a good phrase for what I assume must be meant.

Verbose Stoic said...

I'm a bit late to the party, but I want to address the comments about autistic spectrum disorders (and other cases where someone doesn't read well or easily the non-verbal clues). Most of the people in these cases do recognize that they have the issue and adapt to it, as stated. However, the best sort of adaptations are those that allow them to act in socially appropriate ways so that they don't stand out as someone who has an issue with these things. So, adopting a rule to ask in cases where no one else would ask and where asking would be considered odd is, well, really, really bad. Instead, they'd learn to:

- Not hug, touch, or whatever when they aren't certain, but to do that in a way that at worst they'd be considered reserved and not, in fact, socially awkward.

- Learn the social cases where it is expected to do these things so that they can do it when necessary and accept it when they should.

- Learn the non-verbal cues as rules that they apply (ie "If you see this and this, they are okay with it, and if you see this or this, they aren't").

Touching, however, is an incredibly important part of social interaction, and people who are socially awkward can err too much on the side of not causing offense and miss that. I suspect that at least one potential relationship didn't work out for me because I was so worried about causing offense through touching, hugging, kissing, etc that I didn't do anything, which meant that building intimacy didn't happen.

RD said...

The link explains the context behind the topic of this post:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_Watson#Elevator_incident

It is not very helpful to propose paying attention to "nonverbal cues" when a fair slice of humanity has a tin ear about such cues.

Rebecca Watson expects that those who interact with her respect norms that emerged during the tense 1970s and 80s. From that era I drew that (1) one strikes up an acquaintance with a person of the opposite sex only in a public place; and (2) women should usually set the pace.